In 2003, Isaac Brock drunkenly tattooed his own arm with the words: “Life is still sweet.” The Modest Mouse frontman was, he later remembered in an interview with Rolling Stone, drinking heavily and “depressed as fuck”, grieving two close friends and watching helplessly as drummer Jeremiah Green succumbed to a crippling nervous breakdown. One night Brock heard the song that inspired the ink: ‘Life Is Still Sweet’ by New York blues rockers White Hassle; a rollicking, loosely spun ode to keeping your chin up even when the chips are down.
He channeled the epiphany into ‘Float On’, his then relatively small-fry indie-punk band’s breakout hit single (92 million YouTube views and counting), which was hooked around a comforting and timeless premise: “Bad news comes don’t you worry even when it lands / Good news will work its way to all them plans.” Its surprise success was all the more powerful for the fact that the previous three Modest Mouse albums (from 1996 debut ‘This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About’ to 2000’s ‘The Moon & Antarctica’, hands-down one of the greatest records ever made) had seen them sift through relentless despair and hopelessness.
Brock’s newfound bruised optimism sent the album that the single appeared on, 2004’s ‘Good News For People Who Love Bad News’, into the stratosphere, turning the local yokels from America’s Pacific Northwest into Platinum-selling, Grammy-nominated titans of the ‘00s indie scene. It’s a mindset that the six-piece also explore on their seventh record, ‘The Golden Casket’, albeit with the good news dialled up and the bad news dialled down.
The album is a masterful psychedelic patchwork, bouncing between eerie soundscapes (opener ‘Fuck Your Acid Trip’), knotty post-punk (‘Walking And Running’) and maximalist pop melody (the ludicrously good fun ‘The Sun Hasn’t left’). Sometimes they combine all three elements on the same song, as on turbo-charged indie anthem ‘We Are Between’, the album’s massive lead single.
In a recent interview with NME, the 45-year-old frontman explained that ‘The Golden Casket’ was inspired by both domestic bliss – he’s had two children since the last Modest Mouse album, 2015’s less accessible ‘Strangers To Ourselves’ – and his general baked-in pessimism: “I don’t think shit’s gonna get easier for everyone… [But] I just had to kinda look at that and find a way to make it sound OK.”
Throughout this record, he seems to be simply appreciating the here-and-now – to quote the matter-of-fact ‘We Are Between’: “Open, then slam shut… Yeah – but here we are… Somewhere between dust and the stars.” On the bittersweet ‘We’re Lucky’, he softly recounts euphemisms for the cradle and the grave (“These are the stars and these are the seas… This is the plant and these are the seeds”), spaces he feels “lucky just to be between”. It’s certainly a long way from the moment on the pummelling ‘Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine’, from the band’s second album, 1997’s ‘The Lonesome Crowded West’, when he roared: “From the top of the ocean – yeah! / To the bottom of sky – goddamn! / Well, I get claustrophobic…”
Brock revisits many of his lyrical preoccupations here, buffing them up into shinier forms. Modest Mouse have long been obsessed with the notion of travel as an escape from yourself, but now the emphasis is on the home (from the aching ‘Wooden Soldiers’: “Me just being here now is enough for me”). ‘This Is A Long Drive…’ opened, via the skeletal ‘Dramamine’, with a sickly ode to drug dependency: “Travelin’, swallowin’ Dramamine…” ‘The Golden Casket’’s opener conveys a jokier, more wholesome missive: “Fuck your acid trip / I need to get home.”
The biggest overhaul lifts the ‘The Sun Hasn’t Left’ to blissful heights. On ‘Lives’, a heartbreaking acoustic track from ‘The Moon & Antarctica’, he warned: “No one really knows the ones they love / If you knew everything they thought / I bet you’d wish that they’d just shut up.” Now, over a jubilant horn section, he beams: “I don’t know you / You don’t know me / You and I are us, you see.” It’s the same message, but this time delivered with a shrug and a goofy grin. Like: what’re you gonna do?
The song is their most straight-up pop tune yet, bolstering the concept that ‘The Golden Casket’ is the spiritual sequel to ‘Good News…’, which saw the previously indier-than-thou punks gloss up their sound; here they’ve turned in a lushly produced psychedelic pop masterwork.
On the YouTube video for ‘We Are Between’, someone named Mmagoo has commented of Modest Mouse: “Brought me comfort at 13… Bringing me comfort at 31. My goodness does life go by quick.” It’s comforting that Isaac Brock, a man who has spent his 25-year career searching, questioning and hoping for meaning, concludes on ‘We’re Lucky’: “It takes a lifetime to ever figure out / There ain’t no lifetime that’s ever figured out.” Life is still sweet.
Release date: June 25
Record label: Epic Records