Welcome to Millennial Masterpieces, where I’ll look back at a great album released within the past 17 years and see what its legacy is. Fourteenth in the series is the mainstream crossover effort from chronically sardonic midwest indie kings Modest Mouse: Good News For People Who Love Bad News.
Released: April 6th, 2004
Modest Mouse, by all accounts, seemed perfectly content traversing the vast American wilderness, even the most gritty corners of it. In fact they reveled in their essentialist view of the world, particularly their unrepentant frontman Isaac Brock. With his manic yelp he told bluntly realistic tales of his average countryman’s life, throwing in dollops of existentialist ruminations for good measure. It was music for the thinkers and the travelers; nobody would see the world in a harsher light until Father John Misty waltzed in at the dawn of the 2010s.
Good News doesn’t so much turn the formula on its head as it hides it under concise, laser-focused pop structure. After a decade of toiling away as hipster figureheads, Brock and company decided the only way to really get their message out to the masses was to Trojan Horse it inside an effortlessly catchy hit like the monster of a single “Float On”.
A song that’s still hard to pin down to this day– is it sincere or cynical? Is it a calculated jab at sunny pop or is it actually a bizarre outlier in the band’s discography? Is Isaac Brock really admitting that the world isn’t all dirty interstates, sinking boats and crashing planes? While it’s tempting to think that Brock found a little bit of joy in his life, it’s far more likely that the lyrics are meant to be taken with a sarcastic eye roll. Not that it really matters, as they’re paired with a relentlessly catchy hook and spry bounce that rightfully launch the song into every countdown of that decade’s best tunes. Whether or not the cheery sentiment is genuine becomes a tertiary issue when those jangly guitars are so fun and bright.
A lot of the album features this kind of juxtaposition. All the band’s trademarks– the infamous undulating notes, the Midwest pinwheel guitar, the smirking observations– are glued to downright singable hooks and pristine production miles away from all preceding output.
Consider “Dance Hall”, which features some decidedly whimsical xylophone as Isaac Brock goes on a typical Isaac Brock folk freak out. Or the jaunty vulgarity of “Black Cadillacs”. Or you know, the obvious dissonance of titles like “Satin in a Coffin” and “The Good Times Are Killing Me”. All very much pop songs, by the way. There’s almost no filler on the record; every song is laden eminently memorable moments. There also wasn’t anything quite like this at the time- although Wolf Parade were close peers, and album cut “Bury Me With It” is a blatant rip off of fellow Midwest wanderer (and wonderer) Conor Oberst‘s “Lover I Don’t Have to Love”
In the end it’s fairly clear to see that the band just wanted to compromise a little. It’s like Brock sat the guys down and said “ok listen fellas, let’s throw in some ba-ba-ba’s in between my unhinged yelling about the bleak realities of human existence.” It paid off- as heretical as it might be to say, this is far and away the best Modest Mouse album. It sneakily mashed together the band’s longstanding characteristics with some grade-A hooks in a coherent manner that allowed for the album to become a gateway to their material (for both laypeople as well as some more notable fans), as well as being a great work all on its lonesome.