We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank
By Peter Hepburn | 26 January 2008
Modest Mouse’s fifth album, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, is not a bad album. The band has yet to really make one of those; for the last decade they’ve been a reliably entertaining and impressive group, despite a release schedule that would drain many a lesser band. But if We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank gives the band nothing to be embarrassed about, neither should it foster a sense of pride. Diminishing returns are making themselves felt here; old formulas have grown stale, songwriting quirks have become rote, and all the band’s musical choices point toward safety and stability.
I hated writing that, because we all remember Modest Mouse at its pinnacle: two phenomenal and wildly different albums in Lonesome Crowded West (1997) and Moon & Antarctica (2000). Issac Brock, Eric Judy, and Jeremiah Green may have been crazy — what do I know; may still be — but they used to really know how to make a record boasting not just great songs but great tone and sequencing; the sort of record where, if the CD deck was on shuffle, everything seemed wrong. That might be my main complaint with We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank: it’s not really the overall caliber of the songs (although the caliber is.not high, which certainly doesn’t help) but rather the terrible, nebulous boringness of the record. It’s a gray and soggy thing: over-long, repetitive, and formless. Try as I might I can’t begin to care about any of the songs in the middle third of the record (“Missed the Boat” through “Little Motel”). Sure, I can physically tell them apart, but it seems pointless — they’re uniformly bad and seem designed to glom together. At least “Dashboard” is excitingly terrible.
Which isn’t to say that the first and third sections of the album are all that much better. “March Into the Sea” is a promising opener but it’d take a lot more tortured howls and crashing drums to drown out “Dashboard.” “Fire it Up,” though slightly less annoying, is just as poorly written as that single while lacking its weird inexplicability. The bizarre construction of “Florida” seems intended either as a way to hide a gaping lack of decent choruses or to show off friend-of-the-band James Mercer. Mercer manages to drag the band down on all three of the tracks he guests on. “Missed the Boat” sounds like a sub-par Shins b-side, and “We’ve Got Everything” fares only slightly better.
The album does find some redemption in its closing sequence. The eight-minute “Spitting Venom” finds Brock showing off his skills as a lyricist and singer. There are a few bum passages (again, the choruses), but he manages to keep himself at the center of a pulsing, whirling, genuinely exciting song. Following on its heels comes “People as Places as People,” the absolute best of Modest Mouse’s stabs at radio accessibility. The track is overproduced, as is most of the record, but it’s at least genuinely listenable and fun.
So. It’s inoffensive, painfully so, with the smell of something run through focus groups from the get go, written and produced by committee to sell the greatest number of copies. A little something for everyone: radio pop for the kids (er, Kidz?), Shins-y harmonic goodness for the indie losers, some caricatured crazy for the Modest Mouse fans (seriously, is anybody buying “Parting of the Sensory”?). Perhaps this makes it even worse, especially given the inherent craziness of the band’s early work. More than anything, though, it just bores me. But hey, why bother getting worked up? Modest Mouse clearly didn’t.