The Lonesome, Uncrowded Universe: #TBT to Modest Mouse's "The Moon & Antarctica"

Welcome to #ThrowbackThursday, a weekly column where we take a close look at a classic album. Maybe it's an album you haven't heard of, maybe it's an album you're aware of but haven't ever bothered giving a proper spin, maybe it's an album you love and wouldn't mind being reminded of. Regardless, the goal is to spark conversation about the albums that made today's music what it is.

It’s hard to believe 2000 was 15 years ago. I was seven years old, and who knows what the hell music I listened to then. Whatever it was, it certainly wasn’t Modest Mouse’s major label debut and masterpiece The Moon & Antarctica. Sure, I was a precocious kid, but frontman Isaac Brock’s mostly dark, deep foray in to the barrenness of life and the unknown of the afterlife was well beyond the scope of my understanding. Hell, it still may be.

It was probably 2005 when I heard Moon for the first time. I listened to it after hearing "Float On", the delicious lead single from the band’s follow-up effort Good News For People Who Love Bad News. Upon pressing play on my stereo (flashback to days of CDs), Moon grabbed me like a crazed wise man latching on to an unexpecting disciple and held me for 59 minutes as it beamed its message directly into my soul.

What stands out on Moon is the album’s cohesion. Everything about this record supports its central themes: the sadness of the human condition and the uncertainty of what awaits us on the other side. Brock is acutely aware that we occupy an incomprehensibly small part of all that exists, and he understands that we love to wonder about what the fuck else is out there. His favorite lyrical subjects on the album are the universe, a creator, life (or maybe something less positive, like “living” or even “existing”), and death. Take, for example, the standout lines from “I Came As A Rat”: It takes a long time, but God dies too / But not before he’ll stick it to you / Well I don’t know, but I’ve been told / You’ll never die if you never grow old. It’s all there.

The album’s timbre and soundscape walk perfectly in step with Brock’s writing. Emphasis often rests on drawn-out harmonic guitar passages properly steeped in reverb, creating a very big space which the song hardly fills -- think the beginning of “Gravity Rides Everything”. In other moments, however, the song completely fills the space around the listener -- think the entirety of “Tiny Cities Made Of Ashes.” We’re a small part of the universe, and we tend to fill ourselves with wonder, uncertainty, and -- perhaps unavoidably -- dread. This is what The Moon & Atarctica, both lyrically and sonically, is about.

What makes all of this even more impressive is the variety Modest Mouse provide on the record. Let’s focus only on Brock’s vocals for a bit. Brock gives us light, easy-listening vibes in the chorus of “3rd Planet” and throughout “Gravity Rides Everything.” He transitions from a deep grumble to angsty yelling in “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes”. He sounds angrily dismissive in “Dark Center of the Universe,” which is perfect given lyrics like “anyone can equally easily fuck you over.” “Perfect Disguise” and parts of “The Stars Are Projectors” show Brock trading fire for ice. He ditches anger for wonder and awe while slowing his tempo considerably. You can hear his concern in “Alone Down There” and his weird emotionlessness in “Wild Packs of Family Dogs.” During the strummed acoustic verse on “Lives”, Brock (finally) takes a break from his pessimism and actually becomes consolatory and -- dare I say it -- uplifting. He’s all over the vocal and emotional spectrum on the album, but the lyrics always pair with his delivery.

The actual music and sound editing varies just as widely as Brock’s lyrics. Really, no two songs out of the 15 on the album are all that alike. Take the trifecta of “Perfect Disguise”, “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes”, and “A Different City”. The first is a spacey comedown with a chorus of Brocks sighing behind the main Brock. (The only voice that can really harmonize with with Isaac Brock’s is, well, Brock’s.) The second is a groovy bass-driven assault. The third switches between frenzied, sour-sounding guitars and an eerie echo effect on Brock’s vocals. One could go on to each song without repeating a description.

The true sonic standout, though, is “Paper Thin Walls.” No Modest Mouse song before or since Moon has sounded like it. Light, playful, almost giggling guitars dance behind Brock’s measured vocals during the verses. The bridge and chorus seem like parts of other songs brought in to the verse idea from this one, yet the pieces of the puzzle somehow fit. It’s been agreed the whole world stinks / so no one’s taking showers anymore Brock sighs, surrendering to life’s inertia.

The best records never falter in the delivery of their message and simultaneously provide sonic intrigue. Despite -- or perhaps because of -- its diversity, The Moon & Antarctica certainly accomplishes this. The soundscape supports the landscape painted by Brock’s lyrics, leaving the listener with an unperturbed vision of what Brock was trying to do with the record. This is rare in music – we often have to project ourselves on to an artist’s work to extract meaning. You can certainly do that with Moon, but Brock and his producers have shown you their cards, and it’s probably not worthwhile to raise their bet.

The unfortunate truth about Modest Mouse is that nothing they’ve done since has been as good. Good News For People Who Love Bad News was close. Everything else -- including their newest record Strangers to Ourselves, which came out last week -- was not. Their final indie label record The Lonesome Crowded West was excellent, but Modest Mouse broke new sonic and lyrical ground and built a beautiful building with The Moon & Antarctica. Their work since has mostly been going back inside that building, or even just getting to the metro stop outside. It’s been a long time since 2000; the music world moves quickly. If Modest Mouse fail to break new ground again, we’ll all be stuck looking at the one beautiful but aging building in the skyline, wondering why there aren’t more.