Genre: Alternative Rock
Favorite Tracks: “Fuck Your Acid Trip,” “We’re Lucky,” “Walking and Running”
One of the first things I said when I played Modest Mouse’s THE GOLDEN CASKET in my car was, “I think I would have liked this a lot more if I didn’t know it was Modest Mouse.” After my reaction to the three singles leading up to the band’s sixth full-length, I was honestly surprised I liked the record as much as I did. Hell, there were moments I could say that I loved on this record.
But I didn’t want to.
My first draft of this review was harsh, skimming over the highlights in order to aggressively bash the elements that did not meet the expectations and standards that were set by the phenomenal albums they released between 1996 and 2000, and even the pretty solid ones they released in 2004 and 2007. And let me say: the majority of the criticism from that first version of the review was valid, but also based in a fantasy where I pretend Modest Mouse hasn’t been past their musical peak for more than 15 years. Part of that fantasy would also include, to my surprise, ignoring the fact that I’ve been singing several of these tracks to myself the more I’ve sat with the album. At the end of the day, THE GOLDEN CASKET is a mixed bag, so let’s dump it all out and sort through the fucker.
The album opener, “Fuck Your Acid Trip,” is one of the moments that I loved, a song that offers proof that Brock can still perfectly place a listener into the headspace he’s in within a song’s narrative. The verses are built upon a hypnotic pulsing of electronics and a steady bassline over a crushing snare as Brock’s words nail the frantic inner thoughts of someone caught in a trip they no longer want to be on. The tight panic opens up in the chorus, which is a bright and bursting reprieve as the narrator attempts to talk themself down from an impending freak out with the reassuring repetition of “You’ll figure it out / Just figure it out.” It’s easily my favorite track.
“We Are Between,” the first and most enjoyable of the three singles from the record, features a barebones, formulaic attempt to satisfy the Epic Records execs who want to get airplay at Whole Foods and California Pizza Kitchens across the country and to get the consumers who bought a copy of GOOD NEWS FOR PEOPLE WHO LOVE BAD NEWS for “Float On” to consider buying a ticket for the upcoming tours. Longtime fans at the shows can at least bob their heads and hum along to a catchy enough chorus while they wait for the band to explore their back catalogue. The track is begging for a strong Johnny Marr lead melody, but the simple riff that appears in the instrumental breaks is the best we can get here. One of the songs that I had originally wanted to knock in this review was “We’re Lucky.” Initially, I found the lyrics about some of Brock’s favorite topics, the stars and the ocean, to be empty, repeated to death without really saying anything. With each round of lyrics, a new guitar line is layered in, slowly building into a dense wall of music capped off with a stirring horn arrangement. As Brock’s simple repeated words drive home what little consequence our existence plays in the natural world, the song becomes a haunting lullaby that is equal parts comforting and debilitating.
“Walking and Running” is another standout track, and is unique for featuring a writing credit from founding bassist Eric Judy. A frantic and dynamic journey that finds Brock’s mouth moving a mile a minute over panning blips and muted guitars. The song opens up and builds into an instrumental outro that features some of the fiercest guitar work the band has put on a record in two decades, and my only complaint is that I wish there were more full songs that channeled this energy instead of just brief bursts. Things start to lull after this. “Wooden Soldiers” features some of Brock’s best writing on the record, the vivid imagery of “Gasoline flows out the ends of matchsticks used as pens / And I’ve been writing some pretty big checks with them” flowing seamlessly into cynical sentiments like “I gave the boat a person’s name so when it sinks I know who to blame.” However, the poetic prowess is almost undone by the formless plod of the music, equal parts sea shanty, Heffalumps, and Woozles theme song. Modest Mouse has proven they can tackle these kinds of off-kilter rhythms before, like in the louder parts of “March Into The Sea,” but it simply doesn’t work as well this time around. The track is saved with the song’s second half, a beautiful outro carried by strings and whistling. The lyrics match the mellowing down of the music, as Brock centers in on a feeling of contentment, repeating “Me just being here now is enough for me / You just being here being you’s enough for me.” It’s sweet without being overly sappy.
The sap flows at full force on “Lace Your Shoes.” I’ve struggled with the fear of sounding like a dick for not liking a heartfelt song written by a father to his children. The lyrics are a sweet read but it’s just not that interesting to listen to musically. The direct sentimentality of parenthood here is a first for Brock, and it may click more with fans of the band who have grown up with them and now have kids of their own, but overall, and much like the tracks that follow, it’s just kind of forgettable. Songs like “Transmitting Receiving” and “Never Fuck A Spider On The Fly” are truly what the fuck moments for their tinfoil hat lyrics and Astro’s Playroom soundscapes respectively. Both of these tracks could have easily been swapped out with “Poison the Well” and “Ice Cream Party,” stronger songs the band released as standalone singles in 2019. The former would have added an energy that would help break up some of the tedious slog of mid-tempo offerings that populate the album, while the latter would have provided a level of emotional depth that is seldom reached in Brock’s lyrics on this record.
THE GOLDEN CASKET is a rare flag planted in the later era of Modest Mouse, one that officially follows their creative and commercial peak. This doesn’t mean it’s bad, it’s just the band in decline, and probably an album that I won’t return to, much like STRANGERS TO OURSELVES. In fact, listening to this record made me go revist that album, and reminded me that there are some really solid songs on it, like there are here. It’s just not what I want when I think of Modest Mouse, and maybe that’s ok. If the band was determined to deliver directly to their fans expectations, they’d put out a new album every two to three years and close every show with “Float On”. Twenty-five years into their career, Brock has consistently attempted to evolve the band’s sound and to try new things, and that pattern continues on THE GOLDEN CASKET. While some of the new directions explored may not lead anywhere particularly noteworthy, there are definitely moments where Brock’s sharp lyrics cut deep or pull a listener’s lip into a slight smirk, and moments when driving octave chord guitar riffs give a glimmer of hope that there is a well into the band’s heyday that could still be tapped, and as long as that hope still exists, I will always be willing to see what Modest Mouse tries next.