Album as an Art Form: The Moon & Antarctica

The clear representative of Modest Mouse for the uninitiated is “Float On.” Through 2004, the catchy gem of a song took radio (and even music videos) by storm and bringing Modest Mouse to the national spotlight. Thanks to a fearless combination of quirky charm and splendid guitar, the track is one of those rare good popular pieces. Unfortunately, those who don’t look backward are missing out on something amazing.

Modest Mouse actually has a fairly long career for indie rock, having existed since 1993. The group released their first album in 1996 and then continued forth, releasing another album and a b-sides collection through 1999. It is in the year 2000 that we look to see Modest Mouse at the top of their game, releasing one of the greatest albums of the past decade.

Sound Reaction

The Moon & Antarctica succeeds initially because of the music. This is important in gaining the trust of a listener and providing reason to revisit songs repeatedly. And this album has many, many reasons for replay. Simply starting with the opener “3rd Planet,” an inviting acoustic guitar leads into a deep examination of the state of life, religion, and morality on Earth. The lyrical content (which we’ll get to) is the future draw, but the alternate loud and soft segments impress and are very enjoyable.

It’s within the second song that the album develops a true sense of sonic identity. Backward-sounding guitars and strange drum patterns combine in “Gravity Rides Everything” and form a very distant sound. While it is tempting to label this as space-rock, the term just doesn’t stick. Compelling and innovative strumming never seem to fall into a singular category of genre beyond the extremely broad “rock.” The noise eventually sounds circular as it loops about. Luckily, the repetition isn’t annoying; Modest Mouse is careful to keep the atmosphere lively, and the payoff is excellent.

Other songs touch on this light and meandering musical style as well. “Perfect Disguise” seems more like a textured landscape of sound, but manages to emerge as a proper Modest Mouse song as singer Isaac Brock introduces his lyrics. “The Cold Part” furthers the sophistication, introducing an emotive violin to the mix, drawing forth a sense of dread and melancholy. Here, this singing is pitch-perfect with the particular guitar style offered and the large feel of the song.

Yet the album also has loud moments, offering a look into the more angered elements of Modest Mouse. “Dark Center of the Universe” erupts into a wild ride, offering insight onto how Brock is the “ass” he is. The track is upbeat and appeals with bombastic drumming and wild, rant-like vocals. A disco feel is achieved on “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” as both bass and drums perform in lockstep perfection, achieving the tight sound needed for emulation of the genre. The song simultaneously appeals and repels the listener with claustrophobic sounds and perfect rhythm. The Moon impresses through to the end, finishing with the raucous “What People Are Made Of.” Here, the band releases any pretentions about their rock status and goes full-bore, thoroughly distorted and with pure yelling vocals at the finale.

However, the true center of the album, and the most important musical element, is the song “The Stars Are Projectors.” This epic, nine minute track cannot be ignored and does not allow you to ignore it. Crazed, otherworldly speech is laid over loud, spacey guitars as the song begins. This eventually translates to a more reserved second section, where more contained guitars drive the forward motion. This continues until the drums pick up, sweeping the music to a different tempo, while also forcing the guitar line to follow suit. But, the reaction also results in a louder guitar, increasing the excitement and impressing the ears. This finally collapses into a long instrumental outro that features impressive changes in dynamics and rhythm, all releasing in a quiet let-down. There is no other song like this one in the work of any artist, and The Moon & Antarctica is defined partially by this difficult piece. “The Stars Are Projectors” is very important, showing the musical maturity of Modest Mouse, but also in how it impresses throughout. If such a long track can manage to be so good, things bode well for the album taken as a whole.

Unity of Theme

While the tunes are exceptional, The Moon & Antarctica stands above most other releases due to the stunning content realization achieved through the 15 tracks. Introspection leads the lyrical content, but the particular words and ideas absolutely shimmer with brilliance. Themes don’t get much bigger than God and Isaac Brock steps up to the challenge in the first track, noting that humans think “they’re being watched by an eye in the sky.”

But the God concept isn’t the biggest deal here. Instead, it’s an overarching discussion the nature of life, told through stories of God, analysis of gravity, the shape of the universe, the very status of reality, and the afterlife. This list seems utterly impossible to tackle in a philosophical novel, yet Modest Mouse manages to carry this monumental task in near-perfect fashion. Instead of preaching about personal views, Brock explores his own life, spinning stories of nosy eyes “watching them watch them watch me right now.” His life is being watched, his motions are imperfect, and he sounds separated from the world.

Yet Modest Mouse manages to take a seemingly bleak worldview and a potentially pretentious scope, and combine these elements into the most compelling, personally, and wide-reaching artistic statement of the 21st century. Interesting descriptors for heaven seem to level the playing field, offering a sense of equality. Two of the most wide-reaching songs on the album are two of the final tracks. “Lives” takes on the stark reality of human hopes and disappointment. Brock states and then asks, “If you could be anything you want, I bet you’d be disappointed. Am I right?” We can’t help but agree with this analysis, as the bleak sounds and honest vocals force an intimate reflection on personal interests. It’s a sometimes-rough experience, but is brilliant.

The second defining song is “Life Like Weeds.” Here, skittering guitars punctuate a seemingly depressing outlook on the world, as the band sings “I could have told you all that I loved you.” The important word here is “could.” Active choice (or ignoring) is implied here, offering an insight onto his mindset. Yet, before we get lost in a sense of dread, the tone shifts, offering a different perspective. Said to another person, the Isaac sings, “In this life like weeds, you’re a rock to me.”

Within this song, we get a real sense of the album’s tone. While the nature of life is weeds, not all is lost – others can represent the rocks we stand upon. Furthermore, the modern state doesn’t represent everything: eventually the life moves forth and “up into the better parts of space.” Surely, Modest Mouse sees life as tough, but it can be worthwhile. This message is carried throughout all the tracks, offering a true picture of bleak hope. Music and words blend to call out emotion and appreciation.

The Moon & Antarctica is a stunning, brilliant, fearless creation. No band on the planet has tried to achieve such a broad statement, and I sincerely doubt that any band (even the great Radiohead) could cover such a range of universal ideas without appearing to force the issues. The track ordering is perfect, the instrumental skill is amazing, and the album (taken as a whole) stands tall among any competitors. This is not just a collection of songs – it is art, and it touches the soul.