The Golden Casket feels like a more thoughtful work for Modest Mouse, but continues their trend toward diminishing results.
Modest Mouse has touched heights few of their contemporaries have managed (or, necessarily bothered to pursue), the band’s career a curious journey beginning in the punk/DIY scene of the American Pacific Northwest, before meandering on into mainstream credibility and Top 40 respectability mid-career. This sudden success can be attributed to 2004’s Good News for People Who Love Bad News and its once ubiquitous lead single “Float On,” which granted Modest Mouse mastermind Isaac Brock access and resources far grander than anything the band had had up until that point. The new cache let the band flex in big ways (conscripting Johnny Marr so as to record a follow up concept album of nautical tunes), but none of it has managed to translate into music that appeals to those outside of Brock’s devotees, the post-Good News version of the band never cracking the charts like they did with “Float On” again, nor made albums as wily and evocative as their first three.
Now on their seventh LP and 17 years out from their most visible moment, Isaac Brock trudges along dutifully with drummer Jeremiah Green (the band’s only other still-active founding member), committed to continuing the Modest Mouse sound, but not really bettering it. The band faced a semi-reset back in 2012 when bassist Eric Judy (the band’s other founding member) quit after several years went by without music being released, but 2015’s Strangers to Ourselves and now, this newest project, The Golden Casket, suggest that Brock and Green’s vision for this iteration of Modest Mouse is a safe (read: shallow) one. Initially promised as a sequel Strangers to Ourselves, The Golden Casket seems to not be that anymore (though the two albums naturally have more in common with each other than the rest of MM’s discography), but rather a venue for Brock to vent and muse against the implied context of the last few zany years.
At first glance, this isn’t the worst choice for Modest Mouse. After all, Brock is himself a famously zany man; a raucous chronicler of debauchery and alienation, with a delivery that oscillates between an emo whine and a ferocious bark usually compared to that of a sea captain or a carnival attendant. These vocal stylings remain intact on The Golden Casket, but the content of Brock’s songwriting has been toned down, less reliant on narrativization (the exception being opener “Fuck Your Acid Trip,” a mostly amusing and characteristic way to kick things off) and more inclined toward wistful musing and cliched, old-guy philosophizing. The former is less objectionable than the latter, with the album’s more abstracted, psychedelic tracks being too lyrically vague to annoy (“We Are Between” and “Leave a Light On” being two of the better examples, and appealingly optimistic as well), while songs like “Wooden Soldiers” (“Hashtaggin’, photo braggin’, no one’s even sort of real”) and closer “Back to the Middle” (which is indeed a humble plea from Isaac for a return to an imagined political centrism of yesteryear) are pitiful in their attempt to establish a stance on the cultural climate, Brock so clearly on the outskirts of it now. There are moments of newfound earnestness that seem like a step in a correct direction (ode to childrearing “Lace Your Shoes” is genuine though incongruous), but much of it is still unconvincing and macho in a fashion not dissimilar to contemporary Mark Kozelek/Sun Kil Moon. The Golden Casket is long too, concluding at the 50-minute mark and inevitably overstaying its welcome. It at least indicates that there must have been some passion driving this project, some care taken with its production, but, increasingly, it feels as if Modest Mouse is investing more time into work that resonates less.
Published as part of Album Roundup — June 2021 | Part 1.