With We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, Modest Mouse joins The Arcade Fire and The Shins in making 2007 the year that they release the record that comes after the break-through record. In 2004, after over ten years of trying, the boys from Issaquah, Washington blew up in a huge way with Good News for People Who Love Bad News. “Float On” shot up the charts and moved fully into the mainstream, from being embraced by MTV to being sung in an American Idol Ford video. And now Modest Mouse returns, with a follow-up record which is more varied and more extreme – in ways both better, and worse.
We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank is really two albums: a quiet, intimate, and touching one, and a loud, jangly, beat-and-shout one. Its quiet avenue can sometimes be boring, but delivers far more consistently than its loud one. While Modest Mouse’s softer side is quite melodic, its harder one is often thudding and literally shouted at the listener. While there are some quality up-volume pieces, the list is very mixed, and largely pales in comparison with the down-decibel pieces, even within a single song.
The best example of We Were Dead’s better half can be found in “Missed the Boat”, a smoothly flowing, lyrical number with perfect rhythm, and is both expansive and gripping. Original drummer Jeremiah Green returned with an exquisite beat on this track that is right in time with the country vocals of singer Isaac Brock (with back-up vocals courtesy of The Shins’ James Mercer) and guitar notes of new guitarist Johnny Marr (formerly of The Smiths). Such pure beauty also runs throughout “Parting of the Sensory”, “Little Motel”, and “People As Places As People”, as well as sections of “March Into the Sea”, “Fire It Up”, “Steam Engenius”, “Invisible”, and in the latter half of “Spitting Venom”.
However, other than on the anthemistic “Fire It Up”, those sections are truly marred by a hard attack of clomping beats, overdone guitars, and Brock’s yelping. And there are a few songs which are just the over-the-top bombast, like the affected voice-breaking and misguided white-rapping of “Fly Trapped in a Jar” (like bad Violent Femmes), or its annoying not-as-bad-but-still-not-‘good’ following track, “Education”. The eight-and-a-half-minute long “Spitting Venom” has a nice acoustic intro and three-to-four minutes of stirring elegy at the end, but there are four minutes of ranting in between.
Modest Mouse does better mash-ups on We Were Dead, like with “Fire It Up”. “Dashboard” has a catchy, up-tempo beat and sing-a-long nature (which made it the perfect choice for first single). The strong rhythm and jangly guitars of “Florida” are driving in a bopping sort of way (but even it is hindered by a thudding portion at the end). Good News’s “Float On” had a certain 80’s alt-wave feel to it, and on We Were Dead that banner is flown by the fast jungle beats and pseudo-anthemistic chorus line on “We’ve Got Everything”, a fun number that unfortunately never stays in one place long enough for it to really grip the listener.
Good News for People Who Like Bad News was an album that ranged, and We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank ranges even more: the melodic pieces are more melodic, the percussive pieces more percussive, the quieter pieces more quiet, the shouted pieces more shouted, etc. (it also continues their tradition of really long record names about people in ironic situations, first established with their 1996 debut, This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About). On most of the softer spots, the release delivers something really beautiful. On some of the louder spots, the band has a great deal of fun, but others are anything but fun. With this latest follow-up to a big hit record, Modest Mouse is certainly not lacking in ambition, but is lacking somewhat in control.
MP3 Stream: “Missed the Boat”