We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank - A Review

While there's nothing inherently novel in reviewing a record that debuted at #1 a month after its release, I've always felt that a truly great record defies immediate categorization or appreciation. Listening to an album is another type of courtship ritual. You either become immediately infatuated and then regret all the stupid things you did and said in the days after meeting your love, or you respond in a lukewarm manner and only gradually appreciate the subtle charms of your far, far better half.

That said, it's time to, in the words of Mills Lane, get it on. I'm tired of the nay-saying fanboys who decried the fact that Modest Mouse "sold out" on their 2004 release Good News for People Who Love Bad News. Not only did GNFPWLBN continue the grand tradition of ludicrously long album names like This Is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About, but it did so in an unusually disciplined manner given the band's ramshackle existence. The major difference between Good News and its predecessor, 2000's The Moon & Antarctica, lay in the production values of the newer album. No longer did Modest Mouse sound like they were recording in a burned out rail car.

I can't tell you how stoked I was to hear that Johnny Marr had signed on to record with the band, and then decided to stick around as a full-fledged member. Aside from his work in The Smiths, Marr delivered sublime guitar work as a member of Matt Johnson's The The, in the New Wave supergroup Electronic (with New Order's Bernard Sumner), and on Neil Finn's excellent concert album Live at the Saint James. He remains, in my opinion, one of rock's quintessential guitarists, the point guard who makes his whole team better through his contributions.

So what are we to make of WWDBTSES? The glittery first single, "Dashboard", sounded like a metaphysical extension of the band's uncharacteristically upbeat single "Float On". Both these songs borrow sonically, if not in lyrical intent, from The Moon & Antarctica's "Tiny Cities Made of Ashes". "Florida", one of three tracks featuring backing vocals by the Shins' James Mercer, alludes to vocalist's Isaac Brock's well-publicized indulgences with lyrics like "Couldn't quite seem to escape myself". "Little Motel" is this album's "Blame It On the Tetons", a quiet reflection on relationships and forgiveness. "We've Got Everything", with its patented brand of Brockian fatalism verging on nihilism, is this album's answer to GNFPWLBN's "The View". "Spitting Venom" and "March Into the Sea" are matching middle fingers to those who would wrong you (even if you deserved it), the former a straighforward rocker with a stripped-down intro that builds to a crescendo, the latter a Pixies-ish romp reminiscent of TIALDFSWNTTA's "The Ionizes & Atomizes" on a particularly vicious stimulant-fueled bender. "Missed the Boat" is at turns hopeful and despondent, reflective of Isaac Brock's newfound maturity and the realization on how we create self-fulfilling prophecies. "Fire It Up" is the album's most Zen-like track, at turns both childlike and profound. "Even if we had been sure enough, it's true we really didn't know" gives way to "Well we always had it all".

Marr, characteristically, adds to the Modest Mouse sound largely without being an overpowering presence. The album's lyrics display what a complex and conflicted individual the band's leader is. Brock, a self-described "mine canary", slowly and cautiously seems to be winding his way to a happier state of being, while simultaneously expressing doubts that it will last. No single track emerges as the #2 punch to Dashboard's opening salvo, but "Spitting Venom" and "People As Places As People" should garner considerable college radio airplay. While not an unqualified success, this latest release from Modest Mouse is a shipwreck worth exploring.