There's nothing like a great debut album, is there? Although technically, This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About
was never supposed to be Modest Mouse
's first album, that's exactly how things turned out. A number of songs were recorded prior to the album's release that had nothing to do with it, some of which were on the 1994 EP Blue Cadet-3, Do You Connect?
on K Records
. The remaining recordings were released (along with the tracks from Blue Cadet-3
) on the album Sad Sappy Sucker
, in 2001. This was after the release of the two heavy-hitters of the Modest Mouse discography, The Lonesome Crowded West
and The Moon And Antarctica
, and after the band became known worldwide. It all started with Long Drive
The title gives away everything about the album. This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About. Themes are already evident: emptiness, loneliness, resignation, illogical regrets for the inevitable, missing pieces. Modest Mouse albums are usually a bit depressing and negative, but each one looks at the same ideas from different angles. Good News For People Who Love Bad News had a twisted sense of humour about life and failed expectations, as the title suggests. The Lonesome Crowded West had an angry, swaggering, drunken tone to it. The Moon And Antarctica was, predictably, cold and distant. This Is A Long Drive... is sad, pathetic even. It seems as if by the second album and beyond, the idea of life being disappointing is not a surprise. It's already been explored. Here though, it comes as a revelation. It's a slow, sinking feeling, an understated "ah, shit."
The music captures the feeling beautifully. At the time Modest Mouse was a three-piece band, with Eric Judy on bass, Jeremiah Green on drums, and Isaac Brock on guitar and microphone. The sound is simple guitar-based music, but there is an inherent sadness in every tune, to say nothing of Brock's voice. He's noticeably younger here; there is quite a change from this album vocals to the next year's The Lonesome Crowded West's. The songs are structured in a way to demonstrate the less-than-ideal nature of the real world. The guitar seems to wander along aimlessly for minutes after the lyrics stop, or the whole thing ends abruptly after the last word. There's barely an example of a song ending comfortably.
starts the album off. This became a classic Modest Mouse song, and for good reason. It's hard to say much about it. The soft, repeating bassline is reassuring, but the guitar swings from gentle whispers to forceful clanging. The lyrics focus on detachment from the world: "traveling, swallowing Dramamine
," and "I still can't focus on anything." The escapist
theme will be revisited later. The narrator is mostly unapologetic, but there is an element of shame. He knows he is avoiding things, but doesn't know how to approach his problems otherwise.
In the chorus of Breakthrough, Brock gives us our first taste of his angrier side, but the verses are all high and quiet. This is one of the more optimistic and encouraging tracks on the album, which is strange since it comes second. This establishes an ambivalence; you never know exactly where the album stands. The lyrics talk about opening curtains and windows, and letting the light break through. The use of the word "break" here implies that there is a barrier of some sort preventing us from seeing and experiencing things, which makes Breakthrough a rant against pessimism and close-mindedness.
Custom Concern contrasts sharply with the loudness of the previous song. Here is a slow song, giving Brock a lot of opportunities to establish his trademark vocal style. His lisp is evident here, as is his cracking high register. The lyrics are somber here, but there is no element of anger. It is simply depressing. The song is about easing into the adult world, and the listener can't help clucking along with a sympathetic smile to the crooned words, "gotta go to work, gotta go to work, gotta have a job." You can practically hear childhood dreams being tucked away in the background.
Might is a bit more energetic, though anything would be after Custom Concern. The title isn't "might" as in "strength", but "might" as in "maybe". Might is only a minute and a half long, but it gets the message across. "I might, and you might, but neither of us do. And neither of us will." The narrator acknowledges the existence of opportunities, but also recognizes he doesn't take them, and never will. People spend their lives ruminating over what could be or what could have been, even if they understand how meaningless it is. Still, the possibilities haunt us. The narrator's tone is disappointed and knowing, as if the prediction he gives is a certainty, and there isn't anything he will do to change it.
Now, Lounge is weird. It doesn't sound like any other song on the album. The mood is frantic and puts the listener on edge, and the abrasive, fearful, distorted shouting only makes it worse. The lyrics tell of a hazy, half-remembered night out, and bizarre muddled memories are tentatively patched together. Just when the song reaches a sort of climax, it stops, and then continues much softer in the same vein as before. A cello accompanies this drawn-out instrumental section. The song seems to be another take on escapism, perhaps through drug use. Unlike Dramamine this story takes place after the fact, and is apparently is full of regret. The lines "he don't remember how it got there / He had a number, written on his forearm / It spelled disaster" indicate that something went wrong, though the story is never clear on what that means. If the goal was to escape from the real world, then the narrator succeeded, but where did he escape to? And was it worth it?
From the first couple chords, it almost appears that Beach Side Property is a pop song, but after a few seconds go by the carefully placed accents on the music makes the whole tune sound scared and confused. This creeping sensation is cemented by Brock's anguished scream opening the first verse and many of the following lines. After a few minutes, the song calms down to a pleasant pace and volume. Some of the lines that stand out seem to speak about lack of confidence: "we're going union like they say; / We'll buy the congregation. / Then one day you'll find us sitting in your chair / With big ideas of stocks and shares." There is the idea that a gang or an army needs to be organized to challenge people on top. The concept of "going union" has connotations of exploitation and persecution. The song gets roused up towards the end, but expires almost immediately.
Then there is She Ionizes and Atomizes. Dazed, subdued, and oh-so-empty, this song is guaranteed to eat a cavity in your heart. For the most part, the music is made up of a depressing bassline and restrained drumming. The vocals are mostly high and weak but sometimes flare up into shouts, though with the quiet music it sounds much like someone yelling into an empty room. The lyrics lament fluorescent lights, which he claims "make an absence of dark, but the light just ain't there still." This is one of the more obvious instances where the album visits the idea of vital pieces going missing. In Breakthrough, it's the light outside. In Custom Concerns, it's the unfulfilled expectations of life that people had as children. In Beach Side Property it's the American Dream, the idea that with hard work anything is within reach. The fluorescent lights are doing their job; you can see, but it's not the same.
Head South begins with a couple of my favourite lines on This Is A Long Drive...: "A surf rock band, from the land of plenty. / Surf rock bands, with no surf, just pine trees." Just like the fluorescent lights from She Ionizes and Atomizes, those words sum up the album almost entirely. A "surf rock band with no surf"; they're in the wrong place for the job they're doing. They have the instruments and the musicians but they're missing the most important part, the only part they can't do anything about, so they move to California. The yelled chorus of "head South" seems to drive the point home as bluntly as possible. Head South, that's the only important thing. Everything else is secondary, moving will solve anything. Here's another instance of attempting to improve life by running away from it. Does changing the backdrop improve the plot? Thousands of immigrants a year certainly hope so.
Dog Paddle isn't long, but like Might, it says a lot in a short span of time. The mood is instantly established as suffocating, and claustrophobic. Before the lyrics start, Brock wheezes and coughs in rhythm, and this asthmatic intro ties into the frightened chorus, "I'm down underwater. / I can't swim so I dog-paddle." Every line is delivered with an echo that is always a line behind, jumbling the words together and disorienting the listener. There is a sense of futility in the words. The speaker knows dog-paddling is far from ideal, but it is the best he can do.
Novocain Stain doesn't seem very heartfelt or meaningful. Basically, it's an anti-surburbia song, something that Modest Mouse does very often and very well. Here, as in Head South, the blame for the narrator's misery and dissatisfaction is aimed at his surroundings. Granted, suburbs are not pretty, and the sentiment is understandable, but the song feels too much like a placeholder. As a part of the album it fulfills its role and does well, but it fails as a standalone song.
Tundra/Desert. The emptiness theme again. The song starts out lazily, with Brock's wavering voice talking bleakly about childhood and broken dreams. After he's said his piece, there is a beat, and then with a long, drawn-out "awwwwwwww SHIT," the song kicks into high gear. From here onward, the song is noisy and chaotic, with a siren-like guitar squealing and the vocals becoming muddy rambling that becomes buried in the chaos. It's clear that this is an attempt to make the desert/tundra seem full and busy by making a lot of pointless, artificial commotion. In the end, the transparent effort makes it seem just as empty as before.
In Ohio, the tune is miserable, and so is the imagery. None of the earlier songs could be considered cheery, exactly, but this track reaches new lows by being explicit about its unhappiness. Listlessly spoken lines repeatedly revisit the missing pieces motif: "one hand, clapping. / Awake but napping." The necessary effort and will to accomplish something is always there, but nothing ever comes of it.
The gasping wheeze from Dog Paddle makes a return in Exit Does Not Exist, and although the instrumental part of the song is louder and more prominent here, the same mood hangs over this one. Rather than tired, Brock seems angry or scared. The foggy confusion is back, but rather than being focused on futility, it stems from uncertainty. The narrator is very unsure of himself and his life, and whether his friends and memories are real. Like in Tundra/Desert, the guitar is a squeaking mess, frantically making noises without regard to whether it sounds good. As the album approaches the end, the songs are becoming progressively more aggressive.
Talking Shit About A Pretty Sunset breaks the trend with a gentler song, even using an acoustic guitar, and sounding a bit like The Lonesome Crowded West's Trailer Trash. It also questions all the sentiments that This Is A Long Drive... has been expressing up until now. The lines that sum up the song are these: "talking shit about a pretty sunset, / Blankets and opinions I'll probably regret, soon." The sunset is, of course, life. Maybe all the complaining, whining, and worrying that makes up this album is wasting time? Maybe it's as bad for everybody else, and the only reason they aren't complaining is that they don't want to miss the sunset? There are only two tracks left, and just in time, redemption and acceptance possibly begin to take place.
Make Everybody Happy is the last major song. It continues with much the same mood as the previous song at a slightly slower pace. The lyrics are nearly as glum as earlier in the album, with the repeating line, "I'm not sure who I am." The music, however, is uplifting and hopeful, though very slow. It's as if the narrator has reached a turning point, and although he is stuck in the same line of thought as before, he's trying to change that and things are looking up. The song goes on for about three minutes longer than it has to, as if insisting on maintaining a positive attitude, or perhaps even making up for lost time. Despite the unnecessary length though, the song never feels like it is dragging.
A brief final word is had by Space Travel Is Boring, which doesn't even reach two minutes but still plays long enough to make its point. There's been a change in attitude since Exit Does Not Exist, but the desire to point out the dark side of things is still strong. The narrator has agreed to try to make an effort, but it will take time, and he can't help reflecting on the pathetic outlook he now eschews. "Man shot to the moon; / I bought a paperback and want to go real soon. / I'm shot to the moon; / Been there a half an hour, I want to go home soon." It's hyperbolic, but he knows there is truth to it. He could probably even find flaws in walking on the moon. And that's how it ends. It's not exactly a happy ending, but it comes close.
The Lonesome Crowded West
is considered Modest Mouse's breakthrough album, and The Moon And Antarctica
was their first album on a major label, so This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About
is often overshadowed. The instrumentation is very simple compared to later releases like We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank
, and the use of this and the straightforward structure places focus chiefly on Isaac Brock's voice. The rest of the music is great, and there isn't a bad song on the album, but it's the vocals and the lyrics that really make it worth hearing.
At seventy-four minutes and with sixteen tracks, the album has drawn a few complaints concerning its length, though with a title like that I don't know what people were expecting. The aim of most of the album is to make life seem tiresome and unfair, and the album somehow achieves this without feeling tedious. Fans of later Modest Mouse albums will not find themselves bored, even by the end.
Modest Mouse pretty much defined indie rock in the late '90s and early '00s, and this is the album that they kicked off from. They've changed quite a bit, but listening to This Is A Long Drive..., you can still trace their roots up through the last decade or so. It may not be their best, but it's a fantastic album nonetheless.
This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About - Modest Mouse - 1996 - Up Records