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Mary looks back at Modest Mouse’s third album on its 20th anniversary.
Published: 20/06/2020   Author: Mary Varvaris
Photo: Courtesy of Modest Mouse.
Before “Float On” blew up as a surprise hit in 2004, Modest Mouse were a band with a cult following, little money, and critical darlings. Four years earlier, the Issaquah, Washington-based band released The Moon & Antarctica, a record that sounds like what bleak Midwest winters felt like 20 years ago. It’s also the final Modest Mouse album to feature the classic line up of lead vocalist and guitarist, Isaac Brock, Jeremiah Green (drums, percussion) and bassist Eric Judy (from 1993-1994, 1995-2012); and their major label debut with Epic Records.

Of course, the move to the big-time was met with disbelief and fear that the band’s unusual sound would change. Moreover, the band licensed the single, “Gravity Rides Everything” for a Nissan Quest minivan advertisement; a necessary action to attain financial stability.

The fears of selling out couldn’t be more unfounded: On June 13, 2000, Modest Mouse released their strangest album to date.

Pitchfork’s “Top 200 Albums of 2000” list ranked The Moon & Antarctica as the third best album of 2000, losing out to Kid A by Radiohead and Ágætis byrjun by Sigur Rós. Beyond the critical acclaim, the album peaked at #120 on the Billboard 200 and at #5 on the Heatseekers Albums chart. Amongst die-hard fans, the album is examined alongside their 1997 classic, The Lonesome Crowded West in frequent “what’s the best Modest Mouse album?” debates. Learning the eternally groovy bassline to “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” (or hearing it on the Gilmore Girls episode, “Application Anxiety”) or the opening chords to “3rd Planet” was genuinely the coolest skill ever; especially if those songs happened to be your introduction to indie rock.

In 2020, you could say Modest Mouse are known only to a handful of ‘90s rock music buffs. Try bringing them up with peers who don’t live and breathe indie rock, and you will likely be met with deaf ears. Alternatively, bring them up on forums like or their subreddit for the kind of fervour thought to have died after One Direction went on hiatus; inspired conversations and the kind of snark only used by music fans who understand the feeling of waiting eight years for their favourite band’s next album.   

Beginning with the sublime “3rd Planet,” Modest Mouse kick off their third album with muses on the universe; and ties them with where we end and begin. Those opening chords were as poppy as Brock was willing to get in 2000. He comes into his own as a philosopher, exploring the monotony of everyday decisions when he sings, “Well, the universe is shaped exactly like the Earth/If you go straight long enough, you’ll end up where you were.” It’s a sentiment the band revisit on multiple occasions within the dense, 16-track opus that is The Moon & Antarctica.           

Another recurring theme the album explores is, well, being an asshole. “Wild Pack of Family Dogs” explores intergenerational apathy, while the narrator of “Dark Center of the Universe” imagines disappearing, while insisting he isn’t the worst person to exist – however, it did take a lot of work to become such an ass. It’s an invigorating jam session, too. “3rd Planet” began unwinding the asshole motif – “I got this thing that I consider my only art of fucking people over” – and by the time the vicious album closer, “What People Are Made Of” rolls around, Brock is tired of being clever. In fact, he sees through the niceties and the endless evolutions that we call life. It’s a jarring, raucous song; but there’s no other ending fit for The Moon & Antarctica’s wistful stories of life and death; mournful interstellar and suburban ruminations, or philosophical thoughts than this: “And the one thing you taught me ‘bout human beings was this/They ain’t made of nothin’ but water and shit!”      

Before I race to the end, there’s more: that astronomical middle three-track-punch Modest Mouse do better than anyone. On The Lonesome Crowded West, it’s “Doin’ the Cockroach,” “Cowboy Dan” and “Trailer Trash;” three songs that couldn’t be more different, but can never be disconnected. The Lonesome Crowded West lives firmly in the ‘90s, particularly during the boom of shopping malls. Brock, embodying Cowboy Dan, is unable to adjust to the fast-paced development in a once-small country town. When he shrieks, “I didn’t move to the city, the city moved to me” in anguish, it’s real, and it’s unsettling. On their sophomore album, the band experimented with song structure, tackled a multitude of themes – personal and metaphysical, and laid a blueprint of what rock music could become – for themselves and their peers.

The three-track-punch on The Moon & Antarctica is “The Cold Part,” “Alone Down There” and “The Stars Are Projectors.” Gone is the whimsy take on depression and fucking up of earlier tracks; settle in for an eerie dirge only Brock, Green and Judy can pull off. “The Cold Part” is suitably bleak, leading into the creepiest song on the album, “Alone Down There;” where Brock recreates the occurrence where he hallucinated meeting the devil.

Then, there’s “The Stars Are Projectors,” the most impressive song Modest Mouse have ever made. Its unnerving guitar wails set the scene. Brock’s vocals, often untamed and at the forefront are double tracked, foreboding, and floundering in the background as he ponders hanging out in the afterlife: “In the last second of life, they’ll show you how they run this show/Sure, run it into the ground.” As the track opens up, layers of acoustic guitar take centre stage with Brock revisiting death; choice, and no second chances, claiming that “everyone wants a double feature” and to be “their own damn teacher.”

As guitar and Tyler Reilly’s violin rise to a grand crescendo, “The Stars Are Projectors” hits its peak by nailing the core of the album: all of us are fighting for something to find meaning in life (“Right wing, left wing, chicken wing/It’s built on finding the easier ways through”). We attempt to explain our very existence by religion, or pragmatism (“Was there a need for creation? That was hidden in a math equation that asks this: Where do circles begin?”), but ultimately, we have no clue. The riveting instrumental outro attempts to ease us from existential crises; but if you’re a Modest Mouse fan, chances are you’ve been in an existential crisis since your teens.       

Of course, the band don’t forget to let loose and have fun. “Paper Thin Walls” is Modest Mouse’s take on a ditty. As mentioned previously, “Dark Center of the Universe” is wild with the essence of a jam band. The underrated gem, “I Came as a Rat” follows a series of chants before a tremendous time change – speaking of time changes, “Lives” pulls a bait-and-switch at its mid-way point that would’ve been clumsy or downright cringeworthy in another band’s hands. Another equally underrated gem, “A Different City” recalls the grit of past tracks, such as “Lounge (Closing Time)” with a wicked riff and wit to match it.
I can’t end this retrospective look at one of my all-time favourite albums without thinking about Brand New. When we talk about the legacy of Modest Mouse, it’s impossible to mention the bands they inspired – Silversun Pickups, Cymbals Eat Guitars, Manchester Orchestra, to name a few – without talking about Brand New. There is a generation of Modest Mouse fans that wouldn’t have heard of Modest Mouse without Brand New. I spent five years of my life obsessed with that band; downloading every piece of music they were involved in, tracing any clues about new music, joining a fandom for the first time and believing that they had saved my life. Jesse Lacey’s cover of “Trailer Trash” led me to check out Modest Mouse. The Brand New B-side, “Out of Range” contains a call-back to The Moon & Antarctica standout track, “Life Like Weeds”.

To this day, I can’t listen to those two songs the way that I once did. Once the first accusations against Jesse Lacey crashed into the spotlight, I knew I could no longer support him or the band. When the band sat in radio-silence as Lacey’s supporters harassed the survivors, that choice was solidified. However, that doesn’t prevent the complex, distressing feelings I have when I hear their music in public, or see their name pop up on my Twitter feed. Founder and Editor-in-Chief, Jason Tate explained it best on his look back at his favourite albums of 2006: “There is no denying that it [Brand New’s 2006 album, The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me] is a part of my past, and part of me in that rare way some albums feel tattooed to your soul. But we get to choose who we are in the present, and I choose not to have it be part of mine.”    

I do hope that one day, I can enjoy those tracks in an innocuous fashion again. There’s no doubt that it has influenced my music taste, my own writing, and stands the test of time 20 years on. No matter my personal emotions and memories attached to the album, with The Moon & Antarctica, Modest Mouse crafted a deeply challenging, rewarding album full of enormous fulfilled ambition. They proved that the Washington indie rock scene wasn’t dead or regressing. Isaac Brock penned the finest lyrics of his career – quite a feat for such an already accomplished songwriter. His inquisitive nature and less is more approach to writing influenced me greatly as a listener and writer. On “Lives,” Brock asked a seemingly simple question: “If you could be anything you want/I bet you’d be disappointed, am I right?”. I highly doubt that Modest Mouse could ever find disappointment in their efforts on The Moon & Antarctica. You’d hope not, anyway. Otherwise, what hope do the rest of us have?          

Listen to ‘The Moon & Antarctica’ on Spotify or Apple Music.



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