Authentic and raw, though not nearly as intentionally sloppy as This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About, The Lonesome Crowded West served as a more focused continuation of the offbeat style that had already made Modest Mouse regional heroes. Born out of a disillusionment with American consumerism changing the landscape, with shopping malls sprouting up and absorbing small towns, the record proved both that the band was willing to take a moral stand and that this spirited outcry wouldn’t work against the music. Covering many thematic similarities through a wildly different lens, Modest Mouse’s second full-length album would resound as the DIY antithesis to Radiohead’s OK Computer.
In 1997, the band hit a creative sweet spot, with a vast array of resources at their disposal and none of the taxing influences of a major record label. Producer Calvin Johnson (founder and owner of K Records) let them go nuts. Alternating between heartfelt and abrasive, the result was an album that allowed Modest Mouse to come into their own. With spastic instrumentation, heavy vocal overdubs, and a dark, cynical witticism that poked fun at societal norms, as well as the listener, The Lonesome Crowded West would form the distinctive sound that the band would carry through the rest of their musical career.
A textbook killer opening track, “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine” comes out with guns blazing, serving as a thesis statement for the album and setting the tone for what was to come. Filled with a smoldering energy, the song pulls no punches when calling out the growing mall culture: “Let’s all have another Orange Julius / Thick syrup standing in lines / The malls are the soon-to-be ghost towns.” Though shifts in both lyrics and tempo, Modest Mouse displays the full spectrum of their abilities, even pulling out their beloved whammy bar harmonics that sound like a buzzing insect.
Almost the complete opposite of the previous track, “Heart Cooks Brain” shows a mellow side of the band. The song blurs genre boundaries, with a sound that isn’t easily definable. Isaac Brock taps into a poetic fascination, tackling the body vs. spirit dilemma in terms that only he could: “My brain’s the burger and my heart’s the coal / I’m trying to get my head clear / I push things out through my mouth, I get refilled through my ears.” This would permeate through the rest of the record, both in sentiment and also verbatim.
Fostering a burning, grinding rage, “Convenient Parking” sustains a gradual build until it completely explodes with its chorus. In doing so, the song provides a platform for Isaac Brock, Jeremiah Green, and Eric Judy to harmonize with one another and lock into a funky groove. Like much of The Lonesome Crowded West, it puts the listener behind the wheel of a car, chronicling the lifeless drudgery of highway infrastructure. As a lyricist, Brock sees the breathtaking countryside being devoured by asphalt, and he takes a moment to stare into the lonely abyss.
The anger bleeds over into “Lounge (Closing Time),” a funky jam session that continues to expand within its own space. Complete with separate movements and callbacks to lyrics from earlier in the album, the song shows the band mulling over their work and building upon their past. Treading over similar aesthetic ground, they are able to come closer to fully realizing the song as it appears within their minds. Brock brings in a cast of characters for the song, including an aspiring actress with a lisp, a quality of his own that had caused him endless embarrassment.
“Jesus Christ Was An Only Child” breaks up the harsh tone being crafted and leans heavily into the religious elements at play on the record. Pulling from a folk and country tradition, the song becomes a sing-along hootenanny, complete with a fiddle backing (courtesy of Tyler Reilly) and a loose-stringed guitar. Even in a Southern-influenced critique of religion, Brock makes sure to address the tech boom happening in Seattle in the mid-1990s: “Should have insured that planet / Before it crashed / Working real hard to make internet cash / Work your fingers to the bone, sitting on your ass.”
Carrying the Christian imagery into modern day and blending it with prime people watching, “Doin’ The Cockroach” exams the hordes of people falling in line with societal expectations. This is one of the tracks that Phil Ek was brought in to rerecord, and it displays a crispness, from the classic rock guitar riff to the band locking into a dance beat thanks to Eric Judy’s rhythmic pulse. Keeping the listener on their toes, the song is constantly overcome by waves of change until the emotion finally takes over completely.
When discussing Brock’s vocal stylings, Doug Martsch said, “Isaac’s an amazing singer. He has a totally sweet voice; he can yell and he can sing pretty.” Few tracks showcase this tremendous range better than “Cowboy Dan,” a vision of manifest destiny that examines the greed and excess of Western society. Pulling from the sound of the North American frontier, the song becomes a minor key campfire chant that builds upon changes in perception: “Didn’t move to the city, the city moved to me / And I want out desperately.”
Intensely and emotionally raw, “Trailer Trash” is Modest Mouse’s version of a ballad, chronicling an honest tale of personal, teenage angst through the frame of the working class adolescence. Built around a lingering sense of hopelessness, the song slows down the tempo and lends itself to a truly tender moment, culminating in an extended instrumental outro. When people long for “the old Modest Mouse,” this is what they have in mind.
Like much of the record, “Out of Gas” is a song that was forged out of the experience of Modest Mouse touring around the country and diving head first into what it means to be a full-time band. Instrumentally, the track works as a reprise of “Heart Cooks Brain,” but the real beauty lies in the lyrics. Brock uses the bars to try out oddball turns of phrase (“Opinions were like kittens, I was giving them away”) and craft a chorus built around parallel structure wordplay (“You will come down soon, too / You will come down too soon”).
Jeremiah Green’s unorthodox approach to drumming always gave Modest Mouse an edge, separating the band from any number of acts who shared a similar stylistic leaning. In “Long Distance Drunk,” Green bounces off the other melodies, all playing from different starting points and meeting somewhere in the middle. With the haunting, spiritual backing vocals from Nicole Johnson added into the structured chaos, the track is unlike anything else on the album.
The shortest song on the record, “Shit Luck” is another panicked release of intense emotions. The track is almost instrumental, lending its energy to groovy bass fills, hard rock hammer-ons, and distorted squeals. The explosive whirlwind goes haywire, but it never runs off the rails. Best of all, it knows precisely how long to linger, leaving just before it overstays its welcome. Even when the band dabbles in the obscure, at its core, it can’t hide its adoration for punk rock.
Throughout nearly eleven minutes of perfection, “Truckers Atlas” conjures images of touring across the country in a beat-up van, anchored by Jeremiah Green’s smooth, relentless drum rolls that keep the track on a constant groove. Producer Calvin Johnson kept recording until the band stopped playing, so we are hearing rehearsal recordings of an extended jam session. The song continues to flaunt the band’s need for strangeness through loops and echoes, repeating moments from earlier in the song and building upon them. From Modest Mouse’s inception, the band was never afraid to take risks, and it pays off in a big way on “Truckers Atlas.”
Concise in a way that sounds like Built to Spill or Pavement, “Polar Opposites” is a sonic outlier on the album, truly a product of the regional scene. Brock has an almost Oscar Wilde approach to satire, and here he has crafted a breezy song about a heavy topic. As a listener, it’s easy to bob along to the melody without realizing that you are witnessing a tale of depression. The track constructs great lines about dulling your senses to avoid responsibility: “I’m trying to drink away the part of the day that I cannot sleep away.”
“Bankrupt On Selling” was a spontaneous number, built around Dann Gallucci’s acoustic guitar strumming on a late night drive between cities. Coming down off the high of the previous track, Isaac Brock is particularly vulnerable in his stream-of-consciousness lyrics, once again taking a jab at religion. Now, it is the dark side of biblical stories that interests him, focusing on the villains: “I’d sell off my Savior for a set of new rings / And some sandals with the style of straps that cling best to the era.” The album has come full circle, making that claim that consumerism has become the new spirituality.
“Styrofoam Boots / It’s All Nice On Ice, Alright” shows off the band’s playful nature with a pop song containing visions of what was to come with singles like “Float On” and “Ocean Breathes Salty.” Beginning as an acoustic folk tune, the song soon evolves into a spazzed out frenzy. When the full band kicks in, it is an overwhelming shock to the system. The track continues to use absurdity to dissect religion: “I’m in heaven / Trying to figure out which stack / They’re going to stuff us Atheists into / And Peter and his monkey laugh / And I laugh with them / I’m not sure what at.”
With variety in songwriting while still feeling like a cohesive statement, The Lonesome Crowded West painted a portrait of a band that was still incredibly young and ambitious. It was these days traveling around in a van and learning how to get their voices heard that saw Modest Mouse forming the kind of bonds that result in unshakeable harmony within a band. In the coming years, they would hit the height of their commercial and critical appeal, yet even as they broke into the mainstream, they refused to compromise the sound that was formed during this period.