Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Modest Mouse The Golden Casket

Epic
2021
Epic
2021

Isaac Brock has been a father for nearly two decades now, but he has never sounded more like a dad. Behold the Modest Mouse mastermind at the outset of new album The Golden Casket — the band’s first in six years — declaring, in a stark contrast to his hallucinatory past, “Fuck your acid trip, I need to get home.” Catch him on “Wooden Soldiers” decrying the “hashtaggin’, photo-braggin'” set while assuring his partner, “You just being here, being you’s enough for me.” Survey the relentless sentimentality on display throughout “Lace Your Shoes,” a miniature epic in which Brock earnestly alludes to his children being delivered by a stork and worries that someone will be cruel to them at school someday. Amidst the freeform synth melodies and slow-pounding toms, he even tenderly enthuses, “I can’t wait to see which paths you choose.” It’s not for nothing that Brock and his longtime drummer Jeremiah Green appeared in golf regalia in their recent promo pics.

“I’m fighting the urge to do a children’s record,” Brock recently told Uproxx. In a separate chat with NME, Brock, whose son Aidan was born in 2002, revealed that he and his current partner have “two little girls,” who have apparently warmed his heart significantly. Don’t worry, though: He’s definitely the same Isaac Brock who made his name on surreal cosmic visions and jarring portraits of the Pacific Northwest’s less glamorous corners. The song where he goes full Hallmark on his toddlers also finds him going full “3rd Planet,” informing his offspring that “I spend too much time out on the deck/ Staring out at nothing while nothing at all blankly stares right back.”

You can trust that he’s referring to a nonexistent god and not the absence of any and all consciousness in outer space. Brock recently told Zane Lowe about his encounter with a UFO on the way to master his band’s 1997 masterwork The Lonesome Crowded West. In the Uproxx interview he celebrated the recent confirmation from government officials that UFOs are real, just after he explained what the Golden Casket track “Transmitting Receiving” is about:

It’s probably the most important shit that I’ve written about, which is the true scope of what’s going on with technology. Everything from gang-stalking, to fucking targeted individuals, to V2K, all the shit that goes on, is going on, and has been used on me. Someone bought all these salvaged IBM computers from the Pentagon, and in one of the banks of it there’s a top-secret thing called Silent Weapons For Quiet Wars. It’s basically the Third World War which we’ve been all participating in. But I’ll stop now.

While talking to NME, Brock also wore headphones that play “binaural beats” as a defense against intrusive microwave attacks because “basically someone is fuckin’ usin’ my head like a fuckin’ cellphone.” It makes me wish I had kept Brock on the line for more than five minutes last month when we were discussing his favorite Bob Dylan song (“Subterranean Homesick Blues”) for our behemoth Dylan 80th birthday celebration. And it’s proof that no matter how much his second run at parenthood has softened him, he will always bring an unmistakable, unsettling perspective to his work.

Even in their radio-friendly second act, Modest Mouse have been their own beast, gnarled and rangy, capable of searing ferocity and profundity from surprise angles. However, that mixture has been less consistently potent in the years since 2004’s Good News For People Who Love Bad News and its culture-saturating breakthrough hit “Float On.” Although infused with Smiths legend Johnny Marr’s guitar, 2007’s We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank was the first Modest Mouse album I’d describe as solid rather than special. An exploration of the band’s full pop potential, it had bangers — the transcendently poppy “Dashboard” and “We’ve Got Everything” in particular — but not the bleary out-of-this-world quality that made their early work so alluring. After an eight-year wait, 2015’s Strangers To Ourselves sometimes felt like Modest-Mouse-by-numbers, and its inspired moments were counterbalanced by some of the group’s most obnoxious work to date. The magic had gradually leaked out along the way until the band’s music became all flesh, no spirit.

The similarly long-gestating The Golden Casket marks the first time in many years a new Modest Mouse album has surpassed my expectations. Admittedly, those expectations have adjusted downward in the band’s post-Good News era, but damn, this one snuck up on me. The idea was to make a very different kind of Modest Mouse album: In the Zane Lowe interview, Brock said he told Dave Sardy, one of two producers on the project along with Jacknife Lee, “I just want to make a kalimba record. I don’t want to fucking touch a guitar.” The focus was to be on fresh sounds and gorgeous atmospherics. Inevitably, Brock came back to his guitar, but the push to explore paid off. The Golden Casket is the sound of Modest Mouse backing out of a dead end and branching out in new directions, finding ways to feel vital without simply playacting their glory days.

It’s not exactly a vibes record, but The Golden Casket surrounds Brock’s aggressive snarls and lisped melodies with a stellar array of tones and textures. Exultant brass comes blasting through the finale of “We’re Lucky.” Brock channels his paranoia into graceful beauty on “Transmitting Receiving,” piling up layers of his own speaking and singing against one of his prettiest floating arrangements since “The World At Large.” The flickering, sighing backdrop of “Lace Your Shoes” lends a space-y grandiosity to some of his most tender lyrics, while advance single “Leave A Light On” hems up its rushing current of effects and instrumentation (that organ!) only to let it come surging through the dam again. Think of it as their answer to Wilco’s “Spiders (Kidsmoke).”

Even the more visceral songs on the album benefit from the clever production. “Fuck Your Acid Trip” builds a propulsive rhythm out of vibrating noise and occasionally levels out into a tightly wound pop song, a pattern repeated on the urgent “Japanese Trees.” The brilliantly named “Never Fuck A Spider On The Fly” is a ballet of throttling low end and layers upon layers of harmonic shimmer. (“I don’t care for politics and it doesn’t care for me!” Brock yells at one point. “I don’t like being watched by the TV.”) A twitchy skittering beat turns “Walking And Running” into a wild ride, and when it explodes into a shout-along chorus, a classic reverb-y Modest Mouse guitar line comes snaking through the chaos. The band has never sounded more arena-ready than on “We Are Between,” which pairs a melody built for cavernous sing-alongs with Phil-Elverum-esque lyrics about this vast expanse we inhabit.

The album wanes in its middle section, when Modest Mouse lean into some of their worst tendencies. Though it eventually gets somewhere good, “Wooden Soldiers” — inspired by a “fucking trippy” ceremony Brock attended in Topanga Canyon involving African bark and a teepee — spends much of its runtime veering between the bleakest climes of The Moon & Antarctica and the hulking, carnival-esque Tom Waits worship that has always been my least favorite trick in this band’s bag. “The Sun Hasn’t Left” is some of the hokiest hyper-processed alt-rock radio bait Brock has ever indulged in, even if it does make interesting use of the aforementioned kalimba. Overt annoyances like this may still be preferable to the middling guitar tapestry “Back To The Middle,” a lukewarm conclusion from a band that typically ends its albums on a staggering note.

But such letdowns are few and far between on The Golden Casket. For a guy so alarmed by encroaching technology, Brock sure has marshaled its powers effectively this time around. It’s hard to imagine the band’s legacy changing too much from here on out; at this point, comfortably entrenched in the touring circuit with several classic albums to his name, Brock doesn’t really need to keep pushing himself to keep Modest Mouse in business. But with an album this rewarding at this late date, he’s bought my attention until the next Modest Mouse album drops 5-10 years from now. Who knows, by then maybe he’ll be a grandpa.

The Golden Casket is out 6/25 on Epic.

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