The Lonesome Crowded West is Seattle indie rock band Modest Mouse's second album, released in 1997. It was the culmination of just over a year of furious activity from the band, who released two albums, two EPs and three singles in this time. Many people believe The Lonesome Crowded West to be their 'breakthrough album', but the prolific output of the band up until the mid-2000s has meant that fans and critics vary in their opinions of exactly which Modest Mouse they prefer - the sombre thoughtfulness of The Moon and Antarctica, or perhaps the manic schizophrenia of Sad Sappy Sucker.
The Lonesome Crowded West is no less schizophrenic than any other Modest Mouse album. Its 74 minutes allow ample scope for a wide range of theme and style. In terms of theme, fans will recognise the recurrent preoccupations of Isaac Brock, the singer-songwriter - the moral desolation and rootlessness of modern urban life, a cynical view of God, and a playful stream-of-consciousness and love of double entendre and clever lyrical wordplay. The band's reputation for over-indulgence is addressed subtly, but never as directly as it would be in 2004 with The Good Times Are Killing Me. As usual, the album ranges far and wide stylistically. The central element of the album's style is an easy-listening, easy-going indie rock; however, frequent and seamless raises in tempo serve to transform this piece from mere background music to something capable of grabbing and holding attention.
If there is one dominant theme in this piece, then it is that of a meandering and aimless journey through life, captured in imagery frequently evoked of a car journey in songs such as Convenient Parking, Out of Gas and Trucker Atlas. The source of this aimlessness is not directly identified, but it is most certainly rooted to some extent in modernity. The 'West' of the album's title is not the American West, although the title of Cowboy Dan could be misleading in this way - it is, rather, the Occident. The Lonesome Crowded West is not a political album, but it is a critique of the modern which accuses it of representing the dark side of human nature. Human nature's fallibility is frequently addressed. Brock has said that "I don't think I ever write songs involving politics, because they get dated way too quick. Any view you have can usually be made into something more general, and that can stand throughout time." This album is just such an attempt to prevent a general view.
The album starts off musically brazen and thematically enigmatic with Teeth Like God's Shoeshine (6:53). We hear two of the changes of tempo that the band have used to such good effect throughout this album and since. Straight away we are exposed to the theme of loneliness amidst space and opportunity - "From the top of the ocean - Yeah / From the bottom of the sky - Goddamn / Well I get claustrophobic," Brock screams as the song begins. The rest of the track is stream-of-consciousness, and seems to ebb into insensibility at times. First the tempo slows as the lyrics speak in melancholy terms about the emptiness of city life, then the ferocity is resurgent and the anger tangible as the song draws to a close.
Heart Cooks Brain (4:02) does not appear to be linked to the previous track. If it is, then the anger has resided and been replaced by an easy-going absent-mindedness, which is however pregnant with possibility. As the music bounces amiably along in the background, the lyrics evoke a cheery disregard for the uncertainties of life; a peace of mind not much evident throughout the rest of the album. In a typical irony, lyrics that may read as melancholy are down on the record in a style which imparts to them a cheeriness and contentedness - "On the way to God don't know / My brain's the burger and my heart's the coal / On this life that we call home / The years go fast and the days go so slow." However, these issues and emotions cannot lie submerged for ever.
The change of tempo which characterised the first track reappears in Convenient Parking (4:08). It describes a chain reaction that originates in a parking lot and spreads like a virus through streets and highways to "cities built to store and sell". The emptiness and materialism of city life is the dominant theme here.
Lounge (Closing Time) (7:03) appears as an interlude in the album's journey; perhaps it represents that property of the modern which is much remarked upon, its seductiveness. It starts with a raw and strummy guitar riff which makes you want to jive, and goes on to describe, musically and lyrically, an enjoyable dance in a city, and admiration for a woman. The optimism of the song is unique on the album so far, and will not be matched afterwards. The last lines make this clear to us, as a melancholy tone is adopted and we hear again lyrics we've heard already - "Last call! / It's closing time / I'm on the road to god don't know / My brain's the burger and my heart's the charcoal / It's closing time." It's closing time - this episode is over, and this time these lyrics are repeated several times in a manner which brushes away the previous carefree attitude and evokes a deep, pregnant thoughtfulness.
The next song, Jesus Christ Was An Only Child (2:36) is a cheery, short down-by-the-river ditty. The theme of seduction is once again present, with Jesus Christ incurring the wrath of God for drinking and smiling, abandoning his solemn duty. The message - all are corruptable.
Doin' The Cockroach (4:18) begins the album's spiral down into depression, the main theme being an indictment of modern human society. Why are we all "doin' the cockroach"? "The origin of junk food / Rutting through garbage / Tasty but worthless / Dogs eat their own shit / We're doing the cockroach yeah." This is an attack on consumerism and mass-produced food. Unlike the cockroach, humanity is capable of attaining great heights and growing by overcoming problems. Why, then, do most people in modern society eat cheap, mass-produced crap?
Cowboy Dan (6:14) is a song about an arrogant, violent individual whose attitude to life is that "I got mine but I want more". Despite the fact he lives out in the desert, his morality is associated with modernity - a lyric complains that "I didn't move to the city, the city moved to me". Here the whole bundle of assumptions of Occidentalism is clear to see - the violence and selfishness of Cowboy Dan is modernity itself. The song tells of despair engendered by the inability to escape what seems to be an irrevocable part of human nature - first, in idle thoughts ("Everytime you think you're walking you're just moving the ground / Everytime you think you're talking you're just moving your mouth / Everytime you're looking you're just looking down") and then in drink.
The album is diving deeper into pessimism, and the next track, Trailer Trash (5:49) continues the trend. Here, life is painted as pointless and following a predetermined path, ending only with regret and sorrow. "Short love with a long divorce / And a couple of kids of course / They don't mean anything". For these kids, there is no escape - the aspiration of youth is cleverly contrasted to its hopelessness with a clever lyrical device - "Goddamn I hope I can pass high school means nothing". The pessimism and melancholy is tangible, and the next track, Out of Gas (2:31) shows it has all gotten too much.
Long Distance Drunk (3:42) is the culmination of the last few songs, a miserable and rambling description of a descent into alcoholism. Then, suddenly, emotion roars through and delivers us Shit Luck (2:22), an angry and passionate statement of what it feels like to hit the bottom. The song has only five lines, which are screamed at us in between a crescendo of violent guitar riffs. After issuing a number of metaphors for the collapse of personal optimism and life, it ends simply with "And my, and my, and my, and my / And my heart has slowly dried up."
The album has taken us from tentative optimism through a gradual loss of identity and purpose to the very bottom. Now, with Trucker's Atlas (10:57), a way out is found through hedonism. A devil-may-care attitude has replaced earlier speculation on identity and concern with purpose - the lyrics describe pleasure-seeking around the country, and boldly declare that "I don't feel and it feels great".
If the last four songs tell us anything, it is that this life ultimately proves unsatisfying. Many different attitudes to life have been presented so far, and all have their flaws. The tone of the last three tracks is downbeat; the message is perhaps that spells of hedonism cannot last, and meaning must ultimately be grounded in something more substantial. In Polar Opposites (3:29) hope is seemingly abandoned as "I'm trying to drink away the part of the day / That I cannot sleep away". Bankrupt On Selling (2:53) is grounded in a pessimism that there exists anything transcendant of human nature which could overcome the problems encountered so far in the album, decribing the Apostles and Angels as greedy and corrupt just like businessmen. Baby Blue Sedan (only on the vinyl version) gives us the album's last thought on life, and the ameliorative quality of love -
And it's hard to be a human being
And it's harder as anything else
And I'm lonesome when you're around
And I'm never lonesome when I'm by myself
And I miss you when you're around
The album is over. It does not leave one feeling any better, nor any worse. Rather, it is a musical representation of the trials of life, the facts of life in a world where identity is ephemeral, and which is crowded but can also be strangely lonesome.