Ooh Yeah I’d Forgotten About That Song – Modest Mouse – Ocean Breathes Salty

Your body may be gone, I’m gonna carry you in.
In my head, in my heart, in my soul.
And maybe we’ll get lucky and we’ll both live again.
Well I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. Don’t think so.

Back in 1993, American music and alternative rock in general were still in the grasp of grunge, Kurt Cobain was still alive, and in Issaquah, a mining town turned technology hot-bed in Washington, a band called Modest Mouse formed. It would take three years, and a gigantic shift in the musical landscape for their debut album to come out, it would take 11 years for them to record a top 20 album, and 14 years later they remarkably topped the US charts.

In a music industry prone to an underdog story, theirs is surely one of the most unlikely. A perfect storm of the rise of geek chic,  the shock taste-maker that was The O.C’s Seth Cohen and the increasing influence of the internet for spreading underground music culminated in the bands breakthrough single Float On, and the album that came with it Good News For People Who Love Bad News. Whilst the slightly more accessible nature of the record upset some of the bands more hardcore fans (those fans may well be appeased by the upcoming, and beautiful looking re-releases of the bands first two records, This Is a Long Drive For Someone with Nothing to Think About & The Lonesome Crowded West), it was also the record that brought them to the attention of the masses and ultimately went a long way to cementing their place in the history of American Alternative music. A place they’ve perhaps put in jeopardy with the seven years and counting since their last album, hurry it up chaps!

That record, Good News For People Who Love Bad News, was frankly spectacular! That lead single Float On was a catchy pop-number, mixing the bands natural tendency for melancholy, and adding a dose of optimism. Singer Isaac Brooks noted in the press for the record that it was a deliberate attempt to step away from the “bad shit” that had been going on, both personally and on a global political scale. Opening track, forgive me for ignoring the opening 15 seconds entitled  Horn Intro, The World At Large is an anthem for the drifters, or at least the touring bands of the world, finding Isaac noting “gonna find another place, maybe one I can stand.” The highlights flow forth throughout, the beautiful melancholic Blame It On The Tetons, the yelping angst of Bury Me With It,  and the Tom Waits inspired The Devil’s Workday, all jump out.

The ocean breathes salty, won’t you carry it in?
In your head, in your mouth, in your soul.
And maybe we’ll get lucky and we’ll both grow old.
Well I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I hope so

Best of all though, is the albums second single, Ocean Breathes Salty. A song lyrically and musically good enough that Mark Kozelek recorded a superb cover of the song for the 2005, Sun Kil Moon album Tiny Cities.

The track begins with a crash of drums, the production is instantly stunning, the snare as crisp as a Autumn morning, two guitar lines entwine beautifully over a gently grooving bass line. As Isaac’s vocal drifts in the guitars take a backward step and the drums and bass propel themselves to the foreground, locked into a tight groove. His vocal’s noticeably downbeat, his usual yelp reduced to a subtly beautiful croon, he appears to lament a death “your body maybe gone, I’m gonna carry you in, in my head, in my heart in my soul” Practicality overtakes sentimentality though as he notes “maybe we’ll get lucky and we’ll both live again” before tellingly noting “well I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t think so” there’s obvious hints of anger, anger with the person, anger with the assumptions of an after life, anger at religion for giving people, what’s to his mind at least, false hope.

The vocals build to an impassioned yelp as the first chorus kicks, “well that is that and this is this, you tell me what you want and I’ll tell you what you get” The guitar drops out of the mix, as the drums and bouncing bassline are joined by a gurgling fairground synthesiser, it’s playful and dark in equal measures. As the chorus fades, with a drum fill, the gorgeous guitar line returns, playing out almost like a slide guitar only with a heavy dose of reverb and distortion.

The guitar gently winds down leaving just the vocals, and those wonderful sounding drums, “maybe we’ll get lucky and we’ll both grow old, well I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t think so” it’s then back to the chorus, as Isaac oddly thanks the welfare state for a spell in jail, that allowed him to “think a while”

The chorus repeats again, and it’s lyrical content to the fore

Will you tell me what you saw and I’ll tell you what you missed,
when the ocean met the sky.
You missed when time and life shook hands and said goodbye.
When the earth folded in on itself.
And said “Good luck, for your sake I hope heaven and hell
are really there, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.”
You wasted life, why wouldn’t you waste death?

There the vocal and drums take us to a false ending, the stunning guitar line and gurgling synth return to the fore, as we get another stunning run through of the choruses and verses that have come before. All the bitterness and anger bubbling out from the background, and with it a sense of missed opportunity, and wasted opportunity, concluding “you wasted life why wouldn’t you waste the afterlife?”

It’s one of those tracks that manages to be both moving, and impressive. Lyrically angry, musically playful, it’s a perfect summation of the band Modest Mouse were, and hopefully still will be. A stunning and ambitious album, We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank” followed, the presence of Jonny Marr on guitar showing the impressive reach and new found confidence in the band. It reached number one in the US album charts, and since then…nothing. We await the next Modest Mouse record to this day, tours have been cancelled to apparently finish it, but no release date, no “it’s done now” statements, just more waiting, more doubt, and more anticipation for it’s arrival.

 Well that is that and this is this.
Will you tell me what you saw and I’ll tell you what you missed,
when the ocean met the sky.
You wasted life, why wouldn’t you waste the afterlife?

Good News for People Who Love Bad News came out on Epic Records on April 6th 2004.

Modest Mouse’s re-release of This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About comes out on Glacial Pace on October 28th, with The Lonesome Crowded West following on November 4th.

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