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Lonesome, Crowded West

Being a teenager was never easy, but having Modest Mouse helped.

I’ve touched on it in my Boards of Canada article (why hello there, regular readers!) Growing up here in Dubai was never a source of happiness for myriad reasons, and the urban jungle I was tossed into was a source of continual letdowns. Where most saw gleaming monuments to modernity I only saw decay, and where many were enchanted by a bustling metropolis, I saw nothing but desolation. It may sound exaggerated and an extremely harrowing affair, but I can’t say with certainty that I’d be here writing this if it wasn’t for Modest Mouse.

The original trio of guitarist/vocalist Isaacs Brock, bassist Eric July, and Jeremiah Green launched Modest Mouse 22 years ago. Their formation triggered the second tidal wave of groundbreaking indie bands that followed the prominence of guitar titans such as Yo La Tengo, Pavement, and Dinosaur Jr. But amongst all their contemporaries, it was Modest Mouse that stood out the most, because it felt like they wrote music specifically for me.

Isaac wielded his guitar like a viking warlord swings a blunt axe, cutting and slashing with such a rapid brutality that was somehow beautiful.

They were strung out. They were lonesome. They were solitary. They were manically depressed. And most important of all, they were angry. They lashed out at the world, both in justified fury and in defeat. They were raw, pure unbridled emotion and they took no prisoners. And they did it all over a sounding board that resonated like no one that ever came before. Eric’s bass wasn’t a timid secondary instrument: it was a prominent feature that went beyond playing a repeated riff and forayed into funk. Jeremiah’s drumwork was a ludicrously odd pairing of both a crispy-clean and an utterly muddy framework. And Isaac? Isaac wielded his guitar like a viking warlord swings a blunt axe, cutting and slashing with such a rapid brutality that was somehow beautiful. While that all sounds like an erratic cacophony (and it often always was), it’s Isaac’s lyrics that tied it all together.

Modest Mouse 3

See, Isaac is a lyrical genius. He held a pen and weaved the line like a painter. And he thrived on contradiction.

I guess this is the point where I have to admit I’ve struggled with this piece for what feels like forever. I didn’t know how express his lyrics. It’s too personal for me, and the measure of it might be lost through my words. So instead, here are a few choice verses that have stayed with me, and will stay with me forever.

Novacain Stain

When I can work out how it was
Then I’ll tell you
TV stained my memories, yeah
I don’t think it shows
Remember through sounds
Remember through smells
Remember through colors
Remember through towns
With fear and fascination
On what was here
And what’s replacing them now
Interchange causes a mall
And crowded chain restaurants
More housing developments go up
Named after the things they replace
So welcome to Minnow Brook
And welcome to Shady Space
And it all seems a little abrupt
No, I don’t like this change of pace

Trucker’s Atlas

I don’t feel and I feel great
I sold my atlas by the freight stairs
I do lines and I crossed roads
I crossed the lines of all the great state roads

Do you speak the lingo?
Oh, oh, no, no, no
How far does your road go?

Talking Shit About A Pretty Sunset

Looking kind of anxious in your cross-armed stance
Like a bad-tempered prom queen at a homecoming dance
And I claim I’m not excited with my life anymore
So I blame this town, this job, these friends
The truth is it’s myself
And I’m trying to understand myself
And pinpoint who I am
When I finally get it figured out
I’ve changed the whole damn plan
Talking shit about a pretty sunset
Blanketing opinions that I’ll probably regret soon
Changed my mind so much I can’t even trust it
My mind changed me so much  can’t even trust myself

Combine every aspect: the music; the attitude, the lyrics, and what you were rewarded with was a peek into the mind of a deeply philosophical, pessimistic, yet sarcastic, and all too self-aware individual who, despite everything, tapped into every emotion to construct a medium that translated the human condition through art. And isn’t that what art at its finest is all about?

Modest Mouse grasped that. They understood that choking grip, that suffocating loneliness that is a byproduct of living in a city, being home but never at home. They understood how crippling the experience was. The understood the restless search for an escape route, the longing to fade away. The grueling cost of spending a life shackled by the weight of the lives one could be living.

That was the greatest gift a person could have given me: understanding. That’s what makes music so meaningful and essential to our core selves. Music is an elixir for everything. Modest Mouse bottled it and gave it to me.

Photographs by Moe El Amin Nogdalla for The Rhapsody. Listen to Modest Mouse Mix no.1 and no.2.

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