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TM&A ranked by LYRICS

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16Modest Mouse
The Moon & Antarctica


The Moon & Antarctica is one of Modest Mouse's most acclaimed albums, famous for its patchwork of major label indie substylisations and its ambitious lyricism, but I've been wondering lately whether its lyrical side is really all that.

Isaac Brock is absolutely an above-average lyricist, but I've always thought his bottomless cynicism and tongue-in-cheek riffs on everyday catchphrases worked best when they brought unexpected bursts of insight to otherwise gritty or base subject matter (as per Cowboy Dan or Styrofoam Boots, say). A lot of TM&A's subject matter is concertedly profound, prompting questions about creation, existence, the world, God etc. while presenting them as a largely meaningless series of cycles and permutations. All this is of course thoroughly steeped in Brock's cynical outlook, which to me seems itself so circuitous that his deductions about cosmic significance, however comprehensively articulate, often come across as little more than elaborations on reductive thought processes - or that was my general impression before combing through the whole album.

I guess this list a succinct-ish breakdown of what came out of it, but the short story is that

1) I still think my take on Brock's life and/or God songs is broadly accurate
2) Many of these tracks are better crafted than I gave them credit for (though some are worse)
3) This album absolutely has some deeply memorable and occasionally beautiful turns of phrase, and a handful of its tracks hold up among Modest Mouse's finest

So, is TM&A deep or dumb? Let's see: here's a ranking of its songs by how much I like their lyrics:
15Modest Mouse
The Moon & Antarctica


A DIFFERENT CITY

I'm not sure what song I expected to wind up at the bottom of this list, but it definitely wasn't A Different City. Little about this one had previously stood out to me for better or worse, but when I took a closer look I saw why: this track is very unremarkable. There aren't many outright clunkers and Brock does work in a few choice turns of phrase, but it's a face-value paranoid rant about how capitalism and consumerism and your TV and stagnancy and alienation are bad. Maybe he pins down mass-media stagnancy and paralysis better than some (*cough* Arcade Fire), but the chances are you've heard and forgotten this one hundreds of times in interchangeable incarnations.

Best line(s):

They gave me a receipt that said "I didn't buy nothin'"
So rust is a fire and our blood oxidizes
My eyes rolled around, all around on the carpet

Worst line(s):

Dripped out of the bars, someone smart said nothin' at all
I'm watching TV, I guess that's a solution
14Modest Mouse
The Moon & Antarctica


ALONE DOWN THERE

Not much to say for this one: Modest Mouse's Sweating Bullets. I suppose the lyrics aren't as important here as on many MM songs; this is a short desperation piece, and while I wonder whether it really belonged on the album to begin with, it's fairly successful to that end. Brock's am-I-me / who-am-I-addressing-here dissociation schtick is neither original nor particular compelling, however.

Best line(s): But the devil's apprentice, he gave me some credit
He fed me a line and I'll probably regret it

Worst line(s): How do, how do you do?
My name is You
13Modest Mouse
The Moon & Antarctica


LIVES

If any single song was responsible for this list, Lives is the one. An awkward combination of pseudo-profound kitchen sink quips (that opening line, which annoyingly turns out to be the most striking and therefore best of the bunch), obscure personal truths stated deadpan for something dangerously close to novelty value (thanks Isaac Brock's mum) and hackneyed vaguery (that whole middle section), it takes a giant shot at an Insightful statement and ends up as a pretentious jumble that still receives a perplexing amount of praise within the band's canon.

There are points where Lives says *something* (those first two stanzas), but mostly this is Brock staring at the bottom of the barrel and committing the same smart-guy-says-many-words-about-fuckin-nothing misdeeds that he fingerpoints so aggressively elsewhere. I kinda hate it.

Best line(s):

Everyone's afraid of their own life
If you could be anything you want
I bet you'd be disappointed, am I right?

Worst line(s):

It's hard to remember, it’s hard to remember to live
Before you die
It's hard to remember, it’s hard to remember that our lives
Are such a short time
12Modest Mouse
The Moon & Antarctica


PAPER THIN WALLS

While perhaps a little over-obvious ("watching them watching them watch me", really?), Paper Thin Walls chalks up a fair number of points for being one of the clearest and most accessible pieces of writing on the album. Isaac Brock is famous and people know who he is and the media keep tabs on him. He is paranoid and does not like this: fair enough. What drops this song a very generous number of places is the how it's informed by the 1999 accusations of sexual assault made against Brock, charges for which were never pressed by the public prosecutions office. "Laugh hard, it's a long ways to the bank" may have been a sassy parting shot two decades ago, but it's aged like mud.

Best line(s):

Tow the line to tax the time, you know
That you don't owe
I can't be a fool for everyone
That I don't know

Worst line(s):

I can't be blamed for nothing anymore
It's been a long time since you've been around
Laugh hard, it's long ways to the bank
11Modest Mouse
The Moon & Antarctica


I CAME AS A RAT

This song largely sucks, but it at least has a some interesting and/or entertaining scenes going on lyrically. It doesn't make much sense as a whole, but it rolls fairly smoothly as a tangled cluster of one-liners. Some of these are lackluster, some are zingers, but mostly it's a convenient sampler of what Brock is about throughout the rest of the album.

Best line(s):

Stayed awake, took a nap, got myself my bottles back
I'm breaking them out on the street, walking around in my bare feet
I do not need you to tell me that I am not a cat

Worst line(s):

It takes a long time, but God dies too
But not before he'll stick it to you
Well I ain't sure but I've been told
You never die and you never grow old
10Modest Mouse
The Moon & Antarctica


DARK CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE

This one makes its point quickly enough: Isaac Brock is an arsehole, but there are worse people out there, and at least he's self-aware enough to turn this into something eloquent and maybe just a little innocuous. And that's ~fine (although fuck me, did we really need to get it over so many repeats), but unfortunately it's backed up by some of the album's more vacuous abstractions and false equivalences. It's just a few throwaway lines, but Nihilist Brock, builder of mountainous molehills, is at his worst on here. There's a decent frustrated relationship song in here somewhere, but it sadly misses the mark.

Best line(s):

Well I'm sure you tell me you got nothing to say
But our voices shook hands the other day

Worst line(s):

Everyone's life ends but no one ever completes it
Dry or wet ice, they both melt and you're equally cheated

dry ice doesn't fking melt
9Modest Mouse
The Moon & Antarctica


PERFECT DISGUISE

I've always kinda loved this track; its pared back, exhausted feel gets through to me stronger than I feel is appropriate given how many of the Bigger Impressive Tracks don't do so much for me, so although the lyrics are pretty drab on their own, I'm biased with positive associations. There are no zingers or howlers here, but I am a fan of how the disguise motif gets recalled in I Came As A Rat ("It takes more time to make a fake"), which I guess gives it depth? I like that idea of spending more time compensating for or camouflaging something than it would take to attain it authentically. I think we're almost into the realm of good lyricsongs!

Best line(s):

Well, you've got the perfect disguise and you're looking okay
From the bottom of the best of the worst, well, what can I say?

Worst line(s):

'Cause you cocked your head to shoot me down
And I don't give a damn about you or this town no more
No, 'cause I know the score
8Modest Mouse
The Moon & Antarctica


THE COLD PART

Similar story to Perfect Disguise, but this has some nice adjectives and haunting images and works much better on paper than it does in sequencing, so it gets big brownie points. Not a useless song after all!

Best line(s):

I stepped down as president of Antarctica
Can't blame me, don't blame me, don't

Worst line(s):

(So long)
7Modest Mouse
The Moon & Antarctica


GRAVITY RIDES EVERYTHING

(Maybe) the most fundamental world-anchoring life-determining force is all over the damn shop and it feels ironically weightless and we never notice it. Gravity is such a universal presence that we barely ever consider how arbitrarily it effects us, and maybe it is therefore meaningless. Maybe this is much like how big things like life and death are the universe are such big institutions of Existence that they are virtually meaningless, and therefore so we. Or whatever

Is this deep or dumb? I'm undecided tbh, but I like a lot of these lines enough to give Gravity Rides Everything the benefit of the doubt. The song itself is boring daydream indie, but Brock acquits himself pretty well on paper here.

Best line(s):

In the motions and the things that you say
It all will fall, fall right into place
As fruit drops, flesh it sags
Everything will fall right into place

Worst line(s):

What's that riding on your everything?
It isn't anything at all
6Modest Mouse
The Moon & Antarctica


WHAT PEOPLE ARE MADE OF

I'm a *little* shaky putting this one so high because it borders on cringy concerted allegory, but there's something very satisfying about hearing Brock's cynicism go from defeatist sophistries to something morbid and aggressive and totally resolute. If Dark Center Of The Universe and Lives have existential elephants in their smelly basements, this track knocks the whole damn building down. It says something, and this sparks joy. Very honest note to close the album on after Life Like Weeds' uneasy show of sort-of optimism (not that this was dishonest, but I think this better reflects the mentality of the album as a whole).

Best and worst line:

And the one thing you taught me 'bout human beings was this
They ain't made of nothin' but water and shit!
5Modest Mouse
The Moon & Antarctica


THE STARS ARE PROJECTORS

Here it is: the great big profound centrepiece lyrical musical monster song that many would cite as this album/band's finest hour. To their great credit, Brock and co. pull it off: he squares up to Existence, dismisses its significance in the face of the cosmos and confines its scope to a cluster of individual solipsisms that by and large determine our experience of reality and, uh, stuff. Okay! This scans clearly and I vibe it.

It's not hitch-free though; similar to what Comrade Porc was saying alone down there, I'm not sure this song quite warrants the (very) epic scope that it concertedly dresses itself up with. My issues here are mainly to do with register; Brock dresses up reasonable statements in pretentious dressing a few times too many. For instance:

- That title refrain is ambiguous and smug in a way that I don't feel is warranted by just how gettable its implications of determinism or the Relative Scale of Things are; it touches on strong points, but not as strong as its overwhelming whiff of "man you're supposed to think this is deep"
- Those fking moderate climates. Actually, I lied - this is a content point, not register: I don't think this ties into the solipsistic excess of having your own cake and eating it nearly as coherently as it seeks to.
- "Where do circles begin?" is just a pretentious rehash of that gorgeous image we'll get to in 3rd Planet
- See: Worst line(s) for a painfully lazy dismissal of ideological frameworks on presumed grounds of user convenience.

For all my gripes, this is still a fantastic song and it communicates complex major label indie cosmicontent far, far better than could have been the case; maybe it's a bit big for its boots (just like man's place in the universe maaan), but the fact of this not being over-ambitious is remarkable I guess. Props?

Best line(s):

God is a woman and the woman is
An animal, that animal’s man, and that’s you

Worst line(s):

Well, right wing, left wing, chicken wing
It's built on findin' the easier ways through
4Modest Mouse
The Moon & Antarctica


WILD PACK OF FAMILY DOGS

Woo, this one was a nice surprise for me! Never cared much about the song at all, but this lil ode to 30-50 feral dogs holds up a treat on paper and it's time for it to get its DUE! Honestly, I find it hard to pin down exactly what makes this glum ode to things gradually going to shit and being swept away in the crazy ol' flow of things so appealing; it's definitely satisfying in how succinct and complete it feels, but beyond that I think that tenacious houndgang and Brock giving up the ghost by his mud lake are just really great evocative images in and of themselves. Great stuff.

Best line(s):

A wild pack of family dogs came runnin' through the yard
And as my own dog ran away with them
I didn't say much of anything at all

Worst line(s):

The dogs start floating up towards the glowing sky
3Modest Mouse
The Moon & Antarctica


TINY CITIES MADE OF ASHES

In a similar ballpark to I Came As A Rat, though far more cohesive and engaging, I don't see Tiny Cities as a particularly insightful song; I don't think it needs a firm interpretation (there's a load of clap over on Genius if anyone wants to clutch at that), and I think its main lyrical value lies in:

a) How well its morbid/polluted aesthetic supports the tone, imagery and worldview fleshed out more precisely in other parts of the album (Life Like Weeds, Dark Center of the Universe esp.)

b) How heckin cool a lot of these lines are. So endlessly memorable/quotable/imaginable/whatever mmm yes.

It's a cool song and holds up a treat as a standalone. Great shit. My only real complaint is that the frozen Hell/sweater image is a classic Brock warptake on an everyday idiom that feels just a lil bit too overworked to sit right. This song is mostly badass; true badasses don't have to stretch for that shit!

Best line(s):

I'm wearin' myself a T-shirt
That says "The world is my ashtray"
Our hearts pump dust
And our hair's all grey

Worst line(s):

I just got a message that said
"Yeah, Hell has frozen over"
I got a phone call from the Lord sayin'
"Hey, boy, get a sweater, right now"
2Modest Mouse
The Moon & Antarctica


LIFE LIKE WEEDS

Forget Float On's glib optimism, this is by far the most meaningful of MM's posi tracks for me. It's a fantastically simple premise: our narrator is sulking at the people around him and is presumably frustrated at whatever bullshit is holding is life back to the point that he blames it on them. Then a shift of perspective occurs and he gets the bigger picture of how our lives are built out of their tie-ins with other people's lives and these are actually the foundation of our existence and should be valued as such instead of bitched about. Or something. It's laboured but earnest and urgent as hell, and it absolutely carries for me. This is the real album climax that the Stars Are Projectors teased both musically and (ig?) lyrically, and the number of tie-ins to other tracks is probably more satisfying than it should be. Get counting.

I've tried to separate the Wordz from the music/delivery as much as possible here, but this song is all about reaching a resolution by churning over shit until you get over it; it's hard to take that repeated/gradually adjusted title motif out of the context of those momentous cyclical guitar riffs that ground it. That's good songwriting for you. Anyway, this is one of the band's best. It's moving and I guess deep without trying to be too clever, because it's rooted start to finish in a mood and mentality that I think anyone can relate to; Brock isn't trying to thrash out thesis statements here, he's just doubling down on truths of the heart - and if there's one thing this list has taught me, it's that it's obvious which he's best at.

Best line(s):

I could have told you all that I love you
And in the places you go, you'll see the place where you're from
I could have told you all that I love you
And in the faces you meet, you'll see the place where you'll die
I could have told you all that I love you
And on the day that you die, you'll see the people you met
I could have told you all that I love you
And in the faces you see, you'll see just who you've been

Worst line(s):

I know where you're from
But where do you belong?

(that rhyme always felt a little dinky for my liking)
1Modest Mouse
The Moon & Antarctica


3RD PLANET

There could be no other. Life Like Weeds might be more #meaningful, but 3rd Planet is one of the most beautiful songs in indie, on paper or in performance. There's a lot going on here, all founded in the central narrative of losing a child; Brock isn't crass enough to confront this head-on, but uses it to refract a range of wistful/bittersweet/existential/cosmic/metaphorical observations on a relationship, himself and earthly reality. It's a hugely ambitious pitch, but the focus and continuity is incredible here - the whole thing wraps up into spellbinding, each thread emerging from the last before you've even noticed the segue and while I'm now fairly confident that TM&A is by and large diminishing returns off this track and one of MM's weakest lyrical albums, this might just be their overall peak. It's this or Styrofoam Boots, gang.

Anyhow Brock makes one of his more insightful remarks about the universe/existence and the specifics of its shape, and it scans twice as well because the song's topic manner is well equipped for the pathos of its metaphor for going round in circles and making the same mistakes over and over again. There's a slightly throwaway quip about God as an oppressive cosmic surveillance force that I think adds relatively little, but the rest of this song is such an emotional gauntlet that it carries somehow. Perfect track.

Best lyric(s):

Your heart felt good
It was drippin' pitch and made of wood
And your hands and knees
Felt cold and wet on the grass beneath
Well, outside, naked, shivering, looking blue
From the cold sunlight that's reflecting off the moon
Baby cum angels, fly around you
Reminding you we used to be three and not just two
And that's how the world began
And that's how the world will end

Worst lyric(s):

The third planet is sure that they're being watched
By an eye in the sky that can't be stopped
When you get to the promised land
You're gonna shake the eye's hand
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