For the longest time, “indie” meant exactly what it was supposed to: “independent.” That changed in 2004. Enter Modest Mouse’s Good News For People Who Love Bad News, a shining beacon of weird pop that charted the course for the vague but mass-consumed object that “indie” is today. Chances are this site would not exist without Isaac Brock’s pièce de résistance, and we think it’s a safe bet to say the same about our readers’ music tastes. So we thought it only fitting to devote a track-by-track retrospective to the album on the week of its ten year anniversary. Hit the jump and take a stroll down memory lane.
How does one properly convey the impact of an album that has resonated with so many people since its release 10 years ago? Better yet, how does one capture the way its opening track sets the tone for all the songs to come, letting teenage listeners and twenty-somethings alike know that Good News is worth sticking to for the whole ride?
Pseudo-philosophical platitudes aside, the answer lies in the questions. “The World At Large” bursts at its seams with an uncertainty that hits all young people – maybe even an uncertainty that’s universal. That classic riff that begins on the guitar, later sung and whistled throughout, is the song’s only constant. With his signature, scraggly, lilting voice, Isaac Brock narrates a journey that could be geographical, emotional, or spiritual, its ambiguity lending itself to interpretation from a range of perspectives. It’s full of questions – Did I want love? Did I need to know? Why does it always feel like I’m caught in an undertow? It hits on both the controlled and the uncontrollable changes in life – the changing of seasons, a change in location, a change in who we become. It touches on the intimidating idea of starting over, but offers its reasoning in the closing lines, “My thoughts were so loud, I couldn’t hear my mouth. My thoughts were so loud…” Those words bring listeners to a few final moments of discomfort, reflection, and anxiety before they hear the second track – the catchy, optimistic “Float On.”
Let’s rewind to 2004, shall we? I was a 13 year old kid living in an unbelievably sheltered suburb of San Francisco. All that seemed to matter at the time was trying to finally kiss a girl for the first time and grow at least a foot taller. I was scared to slow dance to “U Got it Bad” by Usher at our middle school dances and my voice would crack every other word. Long story short, 7th grade was a weird year for me.
However, while I was always very into music, I was misguided. Through heartbreak and teenage misery, I found Yellowcard and Something Corporate. Whatever People Say About Me, That’s What I’m Not by Arctic Monkeys, my musical awakening, was two years away and Radiohead was still that band with the creepy lead singer in the shopping cart.
Each weekend I would wake up early to see who was featured on VH1’s Top 20 Countdown. Fate would have it one week when one song different from the rest, sandwiched between Jet, Keane and Maroon 5, would appear on there. It was catchy yet weird, slick yet unpolished. With a few dead sheep and a weird mustached puppet band, I had a new favorite song.
“Float On” became my most listened to song on Kazaa, and in a sea of shitty Top 40 music, the track somehow stuck. It didn’t fit in with the rest of what I was listening to at the time, but the single was infectious and I couldn’t get enough of it. My obsession with the track makes a lot more sense now that my musical pallet has become more refined, but at the time, it seemed out of place. Ten years after the fact, I may not think that “Float On” is the best Modest Mouse song, but damn it, I don’t know where I’d be without it.
— Steven Edelstone
As my friend and I climbed into the car, he said, “This album isn’t as good as their previous stuff, but you’ll probably like it.” I was 18 and I wasn’t sure what the hell he was talking about. He put on Good News for People who Like Bad News and I settled in for what turned out to be a turbulent ride, literally and figuratively.
As we were driving through Venice, CA, I distinctly remember looking at the back of the jewel case while listening to Ocean Breathes Salty, just as Isaac Brock talked about the ocean meeting the sky, I looked out the window thinking I had absolutely no basis of understanding what he was talking about and yet viscerally understood he meant. The fact that someone could just spend eternity doing the same shit they had been doing for years fit this perfectly ancient Greek construct that seemed to spot on.
Considering the single went good, I’m guessing a lot of others felt the same way.
“The universe works on a math equation.” “The third planet is sure that it’s being watched.” I’ve always preferred Isaac Brock as a songwriter when his head is in the heavens, and his lyrics are the stuff of nonsense and celestial infinity. When his gaze turns earthbound, however, he’s all about the hard truths: death, disappointing paychecks, mounds of dirt. “Bury Me With It” is a bummer of a song, so why is it still so much fun to listen to? Brock’s Barbaric yawp keeps the intensity high even if the focus is low; six feet low, to be exact.
Whenever I listen through this album, I always look forward to “Dance Hall.” It’s a weird piece of music that sounds like a scene illustrated by Ralph Steadman or a story Hunter S. Thompson would have written from the depths of a bender. In other words, it’s raw, chaotic and unbridled madness condensed into a three-minute song. Throughout the tune, the melodic and unnerving duke it out, especially when the guitars and glockenspiel join together for a melody. There is something dissonant about them playing at the same time, but the dissonance gets masked over by the playful atmosphere driven by the rhythm section, rounding off the edges just enough to keep feet moving.
“Bukowski” is very few people’s favorite Modest Mouse song. In the discussions of who would write up each song for this very blog, several people made it clear they were fine with any song other than “Bukowski.”
I think I know why this is. “Bukowski” is a stumble in an otherwise great album. It’s the one song where the barroom stomp and horns don’t really work. It namechecks an author most people my age (correctly) find bad and embarrassing. The song also finds Brock at his most direct — where on The Moon and Antarctica he beautifully described existence with the line “The universe is shaped exactly like the earth, if you go straight long enough you end up where you were”, here he is reduced to asking God “Why would you want to be such an asshole?” It’s beyond direct, almost to the point that you’re embarrassed.
But I guess this is the risk you run when you pay attention to a songwriter who asks serious existential questions in a three-minute pop song. (If this were True Detective, “Bukowski” would be McConaughy jabbering away in the passenger seat while we are Harrelson giving him the side-eye.) The song is by no means his most refined, but Brock’s anger in this song is palpable and real, like when he points out “If God gives life, he’s an Indian giver.” It’s not too original a thought, how fucked up it is that God gives life but also kills everyone, but it doesn’t mean Brock doesn’t get to say it here, with conviction.
I have no idea if Modest Mouse was actually inspired by Tom Waits, but “This Devil’s Workday” screams with the fellow West Coaster’s influence. It’s dark, jazzy, guttural and it captures the spirit of Good News for People who Like Bad News. Why? Because how the hell do you drown the ocean?
This is one of the songs on this album that has grown on me well after its release. Maybe it’s the horns or maybe it’s the concept of being your own damn god. I don’t know, but “This Devil’s Workday” is as nihilistic a song as you can find. Who knows, maybe it will be the basis for the next season of True Detective.
— David Turner
Isaac Brock would have you believe that for every positive action there is an equal, no good very bad reaction. This good-bad dichotomy is an enduring theme throughout Modest Mouse’s catalogue, be it in the excellent “Gravity Rides Everything” and “You’re the Good Things” or the titles of their later works Good News for People who Like Bad News and (in a really morbid sense) We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. So once Brock and company decide they have had enough of the inane bullshit of “Dance Hall” and the Tom Waits-lite of “This Devil’s Workday” that mar the second act of Good News and come back with “The View,” their lyrics about the pitfalls of progress wrapped in a Modest Mouse qua Talking Heads sonic landscape are like the welcome return of an old – if overly cynical – friend. In interviews Brock has said that “The View” is a distillation of the push-and-pull dynamic of life; you may have the land, but someone else has the view. Sure technological advances have made certain aspects of life easier and more productive, but how much time do you now spend aimlessly dicking around on Twitter?
But what makes the “The View” such a strangely feel-good song is that, in addition to being one of the poppiest sounding Modest Mouse songs to date, you can’t help but feel like there is a glimmer of hope for mankind. Brock is as hardened a realist as you’re likely to find, but even he can’t help coming across as vaguely optimistic here. You’ll take a lot of shit in your life, he opines, but without that shit, the blissful moments would be pretty meaningless. And at the end of the day, that’s… something to hang your hat on, I guess.
I can’t name you a song released last year that I can listen to and say to myself, “damn, that is a distinctly 2013 song.” It’s hard to pin that down without the space and context of being a few years removed. However, I am now listening to “Satin In A Coffin” and let me tell you – it is 2004 as fuck. It goes all in on that pulsing, Franz Ferdinand-y thing. There’s banjo in it, but it’s being used for irony and the novelty of its sound rather than to espouse a faux-‘mericana, Mumford-style rootsiness. It’s so ten years ago, man. And yet, as “of its era” as it sounds, there’s a distinctively and timelessly Modest Mouse feel to it. It’s unstable and unsettling – it has depth and creepy moments and lyrics you hear a little too clearly. Take all that away though, and it’d still be good – it’d just be a random Interpol non-single that you downloaded on Limewire before sitting down to watch the new episode of 24.
“Blame It On The Tetons” isn’t my favorite song — that honor, coincidentally, belongs to an earlier Modest Mouse song, “Gravity Rides Everything” — but “Blame It On The Tetons” contains my favorite moment in music.
And that might mean even more.
Because we all listen to music for those moments when everything comes together just right. It’s what crescendos were made for. And even though dubstep did all it could to murder moments by continuously dropping them, they’re still the backbone of it all. They’re still the thing we yearningly search for when scouring the web for new music, and they’re why we keep coming back to old sources of it time and time again. We want to feel that temporary relief that comes from aural oneness.
And that might sound a bit too flowery, I know, but I defy you to listen to the piano line that comes in at 3:44 and tell me that it isn’t a transcendent experience.
This song whispers a rallying cry against those that haven’t accepted the Isaac Brockian take on Buddhism, which dictates that yes life is suffering, but you really have to get over that and just own it.
Everyone is a burning building, mumbling loudly. Everyone is an ocean drowning, proudly shameful.
But as the hypnotic group therapy session dissipates after the second chorus and a hint of a possible bittersweet resolution sets in, all of a sudden airy violins blossom and hope begins to springs anew.
Then there it is, clear as day, that simple modest piano line that slips in and nimbly dances on top of the tumult in the song below, elevating the entire mood of the song to its level. After that, while the rest of the song still airs the faint aroma of sour milk, at least it feels like the glass is half full. All because of those few seconds where it all came together just right.
God, I need a cold one now.
“And it’s true we named our children after towns/That we’d never been to” is one of those lyrics that strikes something in you the first time you hear it. Good News For People Who Love Bad News is full of those moments, moments that make you sit up and realize that you’re listening to a truly great record. Modest Mouse was going through a tumultuous time, dealing with a band member who left due to a nervous breakdown, two new members, and various arrest charges for Isaac Brock that included a DUI and even attempted murder. It’s no surprise that thematically, the record leans dark, with songs about coffins and graves and burials. “Black Cadillacs” invokes funerals, but it also addresses a different kind of loss, one of a life lived too small. It’s these philosophical touches in an otherwise uncharacteristically accessible record for the band that make it such a standout.
You start listening to “One Chance,” and you realize it’s one of the most “normal” songs on this album. It’s tuneful, it’s uncomplicated, it’s slack, it’s chill. But then Isaac Brock starts shouting his ass off, and we realize where we are: a Modest Mouse song. Everything’s complicated, nothing’s chill, and most things are worth yelling about. And it’s awesome. No band can turn something normal into something bonkers like this band. In 2004, something even weirder than your standard Modest Mouse song happened – this strange music became mainstream popular. GNFPWLBN became a platinum album, and got nominated for a friggin’ Grammy. As such, there are tons of people who cite this album as the end of indie rock – whatever that means.
So two questions, then. Can we blame Modest Mouse for the obsolescence-via-commodification that befell the ill-starred genre after this album? I don’t think so. Did they make weird rock music huge for a while in the mid 2000s, and was that kind of awesome? Absolutely. Float on, bitches.
Many hear “The Good Times Are Killing Me” and interpret it literally: a song about the pitfalls of drug addiction, a song about the helplessness one feels when trading away longterm health and mental stability for instant gratification. “Shrug off shortsighted false excitement and oh what can I say?” Others appreciate it more figuratively: a song about the consequences all kinds of vices and escapism, each of them distractions from the day to day task of living.
Certainly, the slower and mostly-acoustic “The Good Times Are Killing Me” is about these things. But as a proponent of all things in moderation, I first heard the song as not a heedful tale, but as a lament—a lament to sacrifice and the pains of transition. Positioned at the end of the record, “The Good Times…” seems to stand as testament to the toll of not just hard living, but of any self-sacrifice—whether one’s sacrificing money and clear-thinking in the name of experimentation, or sacrificing emotional health and a good night’s sleep in the name of art and music. The song is also a lament for the times that were, a sad acknowledgement that things are going to be different from here on out.
It meant all of these things to me as a high-schooler, sneaking off to the railroad tracks to drink beer and smoke pot—this more accessible version of Modest Mouse making it finally acceptable for me and my friends to stick Good News For People That Love Bad News in the multi-disc CD player at Billy’s house, when Natty Ice was our LSD and his parents were out of town. The good times weren’t exactly killing us, but we knew they wouldn’t last. For me, that’s what this song is about, missing your life (or a chapter of it) before it’s even over. “The Good Times Are Killing Me” is Brock’s emotional guide for doing your best and moving on. Take it to heart.