Coming off their strongest, most mature album to date, 2000's The Moon and Antarctica, the abrupt departure of their drummer and backbone, Jeremiah Green, and the fear that minivan commercials had ruined their credibility, I had my doubts about Modest Mouse's new album, Good News for People Who Love Bad News. While The Moon… was an accomplished work that captured the best of frontman/lyricist Isaac Brock's ethereal visions and broke-down philosophies, it didn't have the visceral heat that revved such earlier releases as 1997's The Lonesome Crowded West. I can appreciate the texture and melody, but it didn't have the angry stomp that has made many a long car ride tolerable.
Good News… returns the band to its rightful place in the vigorous hall
of "indie" rock, without sacrificing much of their growth. And while the album
is not as cohesive a vision, many of its songs are more focused. The opening
salvo is a blistering nine-second horn segment, courtesy of the Dirty Dozen Brass
Band, that's sampled from a later song on the album. It's sort of an at-arms
call notifying listeners of the blaring harmony's homecoming. It's brief and
almost startling, but I let out the proverbial sigh of relief when I heard it.
On The Moon… Brock had abandoned the throaty howl of such classics as "Teeth
Like God's Shoeshine" and "Jesus Christ Was an Only Child" for the soft tranquility
of "3rd Planet" and the Nissan-hawking "Gravity Rides Everything." The intensely
teeth-gnashing chorus of "Ocean Breathes Salty," the new album's fourth track,
is the first sign that Brock has conjured the fury. With a smirk and finger-wagging
swagger he sings, "Well that was that, and this is this/ You tell me what you
want and I'll tell you what you get/ You get away from me, you get away from
me" over a circus organ.
From there "Bury Me With It" offers a shouting chorus of stubborn resolve, pondering
the subject of death (not exactly new terrain for the band). "Dance Hall" is
a manic exercise in thrash for Brock's guitar and vocal cords. And "This Devil's
Workday" lets him drop his voice an octave for a sinister, Waitsian performance
backed by the aforementioned brass band. The song is N'awlins squeal up and down,
highlighted by a constipated trumpet and a lilting banjo. It's unlike anything
Modest Mouse have ever done and it's downright fun, something that was hard to
say about their 2000 major-label debut.
There are some tempered gems here, too. The opener, "The World at Large" is an uplifting, thoughtful rumination on starting over. There's harmonizing in the chorus and even a traditional orchestral bridge. The first single, "Float On," is just about the happiest they've been on record. Knocking the dirt off his delicate shoulders and letting us know he's gonna be all right is almost refreshing from the cinematically contemplative Brock. The music is equally peppy, gliding around some steely drums and a pleasing guitar chord. I've been told this song is getting radio play. I don't know whether to chalk that up to its utter listenability or the promotion department of Sony Music's Epic label. Either way, it's a good thing.
There's a lot more enjoyable stuff here, including the banjo-blessed trial of self-loathing "Bukowski," the subtle strumming of "Blame It on the Tetons" where Brock gets all Nick Drake on us, and the tossed-off closer, "The Good Times Are Killing Me," which sounds like what Cheap Trick might play after listening to a Pavement record.
There's no one true theme on Good News…, but the band sounds unified and Brock still sounds like he's searching for the truths that evade him. Good News… isn't going to get the accolades heaped on it the way The Moon and Antarctica did, but that doesn't really seem all that important. Isaac Brock and Co. have some lively gushing to do. That's good enough for me.