When Modest Mouse’s The Moon & Antarctica turned 20 last year, I was so excited to learn that many contributors here loved the band as much as I do. Now that we all assemble like The Avengers from time to time to take on new releases like Olivia Rodrigo’s SOUR, it only made sense for us to put our heads together for Modest Mouse’s new album The Golden Casket. I was lucky to be joined by Aaron Mook and Mary Varvaris as we dove headfirst into the band’s first new full length since 2015. Here we broke down all that we enjoyed, any potential hiccups and took a big picture look at the band as whole.
After hearing Modest Mouse’s first album in seven years, what was your initial reaction?
Aaron Mook (AM): After being unsure of two of the three singles, I was pleasantly surprised with my first listen of The Golden Casket. “Poppy” isn’t a four letter word, and this band does it well, but the album was weirder and not as explicitly poppy as I was anticipating, which was a plus. On first listen, I knew it was good, but wasn’t sure if it was great. That’s changed with more and more listens.
Mary Varvaris (MV): My first listen of The Golden Casket was at 1 am, so Chorus.fm readers can’t trust my sleepy thoughts. Or, maybe they can – I enjoyed the album immediately. “Fuck Your Acid Trip,” We Are Between,” “Wooden Soldiers,” “Lace Your Shoes,” and “Japanese Trees” were my standouts, and they still are. As I listen more, though, I couldn’t agree more with Aaron that “We’re Lucky” is the perfect amalgamation of “Little Motel” and “People As Places As People,” but it’s as good as “Little Motel.” That sax solo sounds so good, and it’s perfectly placed. The claustrophobic synth and guitar on “Walking and Running” is perfect, too. Let’s not forget that the production is stunning.
While The Golden Casket didn’t feel like an event, I’m always going to be excited to hear new music from Modest Mouse. I just never thought that the album would see the light of day! I was content with that! But, I am so stoked with the album and chatting about it with my peers here.
Brett Bodner (BB): The second I heard the first single, “We Are Between,” I had a feeling I was going to really love The Golden Casket. “We Are Between” had that signature Modest Mouse guitar riff that hooks you in while drummer Jeremiah Green pushes the song forward with a steady beat that you can’t help but tap your foot along too. While we got a hint of the Modest Mouse of old on the first single, the rest of the album felt completely fresh both musically and lyrically. The album was light on guitar, but the experimentation with different sounds worked well. When the final notes of “Back to the Middle” played, I sat back and thought, “Wow…Modest Mouse did it again.”
What are some of the qualities of The Golden Casket that you feel fans/listeners will most identify or connect with?
(AM): Sonically, this is definitely a ‘newer’ Modest Mouse album, and I do think fans of the past three records will appreciate Brock’s ear for melody. On the other hand, the record definitely doesn’t shy away from experimentation, so it feels like it has a little bit of everything for everyone. And perhaps most importantly, there are some really, truly emotional sentiments on this record that I never expected to hear from this band — a song like “Lace Your Shoes,” for example.
(MV): I feel like Isaac Brock’s overt positivity will click with listeners who have grown up with Modest Mouse – I’m pretty emotional hearing happier, family man Brock and this band has only been in my life for six years. For the fans who are also parents or have faced drug addiction, paranoia, and other mental health issues, seeing Isaac as a loving father is wonderful.
On the other hand, for all the conspiracy theorists out there, “Transmitting Receiving” is suitably creepy. As usual with Modest Mouse, there’s your fair share of light and dark. More often than not, the ultra-catchy melodies are juxtaposed with anxiety-ridden lyrics, and it’s a balance that this band somehow always finds. I never expected Brock to wax sentimental on an album, so that’s a real treat for me. More on that later.
(BB): This is a Modest Mouse record through and through. It’s weird, beautiful, loud, gentle, chaotic and peaceful, all at the same time. Longtime fans of the band will probably enjoy “We Are Between” and “Back to the Middle” but I encourage those same fans to give the experimentation a chance, which I think they will after hearing “Fuck Your Acid Trip” and the quieter final minutes of “Wooden Soldiers.” I also can’t help but feel like this album is going to hit older listeners harder. “Lace Your Shoes” will tug at your heartstrings, especially if you’re a parent. “We’re Lucky” makes you appreciate the small things in life like being lucky to live between the sea and the stars. The track also offers up a life lesson in the chorus, as Isaac Brock sings “It takes a lifetime to ever figure out that there / There ain’t no lifetime that’s ever figured out.”
The band made the conscious decision to use less guitar on this album. How do you think that played out?
(AM): I really enjoy the experimentation with different sounds on this album; I think it accentuates the moments where they do use guitar, and in general, many of the songs give me Talking Heads vibes. Specifically, “Leave a Light On” was one of the singles I was unsure of at first, but I’m head over heels with the verses of that song and the way it builds. Sidenote: “My friend’s house is full of very, very helpful nurses/Some days they have birthdays there and some days they have hearses” is one of my favorite lines on the record.
(MV): I think the decision to play less guitar encouraged Modest Mouse to be more creative and get weirder! Reading through Isaac’s AMA on indieheads, he actually talked about this – he mentioned the kalimbas, and the little bass ukulele with plastic strings where “there’s no way you can look like a respectable musician holding it” but songs just fall right out of them. He also gave a shout out to a little synth by BASTL called the softpop, which apparently sounds like water drops when tuned correctly and featured on “Leave a Light On.” I laughed out loud when he said that the decision to play less guitar only lasted about four days!
(BB): I mean would it really be a Modest Mouse album without at least some guitar? While guitar wasn’t the dominant force, each bit of experimental instrumentation worked here, from the steady beat at the beginning of “The Sun Hasn’t Left” to the smoothie of sounds on “Walking and Running”. I also feel like it has to be said what an important part of the band drummer Jeremiah Green is. He always dials up the right drum beats, whether it’s the steady rhythm of “Truckers Atlas” or the pulse pounding “The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box”. He delivers yet again here all throughout The Golden Casket. So while there might have been less guitar, there was still plenty of Green.
What were your favorite songs/moments on The Golden Casket?
(AM): I’m pretty much head over heels with the first three songs on the record, plus “Wooden Soldiers.” “Fuck Your Acid Trip” is such a fun and unique opener, the pre-chorus guitar and chorus really stand out for me. I’ve come around to thinking “We Are Between” is a better lead single than “Lampshades on Fire;” it’s just a juggernaut of a song that feels a little closer to new territory for them. “We Are Lucky” reminds me of a cross between “People As Places as People” and “Little Motel,” and it was comforting to hear a song like that so early in the tracklist. I’m really fond of the “Just bein’ here, bein’ you’s enough for me” refrain towards the end of “Wooden Soldiers.” Oh, and the guitar part in “Japanese Trees” rips. Never expected to hear Modest Mouse take a swing at post-punk.
(MV): “Fuck Your Acid Trip” shocked me, I wasn’t expecting a song that great to open the album, but that’s on me. There’s the sax on “Lace Your Shoes” and the song’s beautiful melody, but this stanza steals the show for me: “I spend too much time out on the deck / Staring out at nothing while nothing at all blankly stares right back / And I hope there’s still something left for you / I can’t wait to see which paths you choose / So that you can see animals far away from the stupid city zoo.” That is prime Isaac Brock there!
The sunny optimism on “The Sun Hasn’t Left” is more complicated when Brock thinks about his children and their future. “We Are Between” feels like a monumental song. I don’t know if I prefer it to “Lampshades on Fire” as Aaron does – that song’s ruminations of the climate crisis works for me. It terrifies me, actually, which shows how powerful such a poppy song can be. Conversely, “Wooden Soldiers” is so lovely but far more ominous than expected. More lines I love are on that song:
Hashtagging, photo bragging No one’s even sort of real No wonder no one feels better than before.” “It’s level at the peak Even death just may not be We’ll cross that bridge sometime and see But just being here now is enough for me.
That is classic Isaac Brock again! So great. I don’t know how he still does it. I also love the psychedelic freak out of the “Leave a Light On” chorus, the post-punk vibe of “Japanese Trees,” and the distorted guitar on “Back To The Middle.”
(BB): Like Aaron, I can’t say enough about the first three tracks. I also find it so hard to describe how much I love the “Just bein' here, bein' you's enough for me” moments on “Wooden Soldiers” and how beautiful the music is under those words. It’s a song that truly gives me feels. I’m probably in the minority here, but I got a kick out of the weirdness of “Transmitting Receiving” and the long random list Brock rattles off. Where else can you find flocks of birds, forest fires, crispy chicken and bengal tigers all together? Sorry guys, I’ve been a fan of songs with lists ever since I first heard Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Another favorite moment of mine is the 1-2 punch of “Japanese Trees” and “Back to the Middle” which perfectly concludes the new record.
Was there anything you felt didn’t work?
(AM): I think "Never Fuck A Spider on the Fly" is just okay, but the only song on the record that still hasn't clicked for me is "Walking and Running." The chorus is wild and quite interesting, but the verses are a little too busy for me to get into the song as a whole. The chorus of "The Sun Hasn't Left" may still be a little sugary for me, but I like it better in the context of the record. I'm coming around on it!
(MV): I still don’t like “Transmitting Receiving,” that song feels like Modest Mouse giving in to their worst impulses. Don’t get me wrong, I like weird Modest Mouse, but that track just doesn’t do it for me sonically, and Isaac somehow makes a more extensive list than George R.R. Martin. “Never Fuck a Spider on the Fly” is just okay for me as well. Great title, though.
(BB): I’m going to join the club here and agree that “Never Fuck a Spider on the Fly” is easily my least favorite track on the album. With every song except this one, I keep finding something new that stands out that makes me enjoy The Golden Casket even more. Sometimes it’s a lyric I missed the first time, a guitar riff in the background or some other instrumentation that catches my ear. However, I always walk away from this one counting down the seconds until I get to the strong home stretch of the album.
Where would you stack this album up compared to the other albums in their discography?
(AM): It's a little too early to determine whether this will be a top five Modest Mouse release for myself, but I believe it is more cohesive and interesting than Strangers to Ourselves, a record I frequently defend despite it being their weakest. Time will tell whether it could overtake We Were Dead for me, but the good news (for people who love bad news) is that like all great records, I keep wanting to replay it, warts and all.
(MV): To be honest, I find it unfair to any artist to rank a brand new album against an already prolific discography. The Moon & Antarctica is one of my favorite albums of all time. As far as I’m concerned, it’s difficult for anyone to get close to the creativity and emotion of that record, let alone Isaac Brock, 21 years later in a much different (and hopefully healthier) headspace. The Golden Casket is a solid record that I have really enjoyed listening to over the last couple of days, and I can see myself returning to it for a long while.
I also don’t enjoy ranking albums in general, that’s a boring way to discuss music. Music shouldn’t be discussed as only good or bad - it’s so much more than that. I’d rather talk about why The Golden Casket is interesting to us.
(BB): Mary makes a good point here. While I might enjoy the occasional album ranking and the discussions/arguments that ensue, at the end of the day music really is more than just good or bad. It’s also an incredibly difficult task to attempt to rank each Modest Mouse album because each of them are special and have so much to offer to listeners. This rings true for The Golden Casket, as it easily finds a place amongst all the works that have come before while also being unique and standing apart from the pack.
Any other observations that stand out about the band/new album?
(AM): I recently wrote about how much The Moon and Antarctica means to me and how I was listening to it when I got into a bad car accident in 2019. I ended that write-up by mentioning that regardless of how I felt about The Golden Casket, it was comforting to know that my favorite band was still going through life alongside all of us, "freaked out and occasionally bursting with joy." And given the subject matter, the experimentation, that's exactly how I would describe this record. It's a wonderful balance of the Modest Mouse you know and some fitting new directions for them in 2021. I would just caution long-term fans to give this one a chance, because I don't think one listen is enough to recognize just how quintessential it feels.
(MV): The Golden Casket is definitely a modern Modest Mouse album, but that’s not a bad thing. We have the same Isaac Brock we know and love - he is still simultaneously witty and encapsulates anxiety in a way nobody else does. The band will never be afraid of taking risks and getting weird, and the production is better here than on Strangers to Ourselves (a GREAT album). I’d love to hear “The Ground Walks…” recorded today.
In my The Moon & Antarctica retrospective article, I discussed Brock’s inquisitive nature and less is more approach to writing, which influenced me greatly as a listener and writer. I closed that piece by quoting “Lives”: “If you could be anything you want/I bet you’d be disappointed, am I right?” And followed it up by saying, “I highly doubt that Modest Mouse could ever find disappointment in their efforts on The Moon & Antarctica. You’d hope not, anyway. Otherwise, what hope do the rest of us have?” Here I am, hoping that they’re proud of The Golden Casket. I know I am.
(BB): I continue to marvel at how great each full length Modest Mouse album is and The Golden Casket is further evidence of this. I’ve been let down many times in recent years by my favorite bands releasing disappointing albums, but Modest Mouse delivers every time. I do wish we wouldn’t have to wait 7-8 years for a new album like we have since 2007, but if it takes that much time to give us records like Strangers to Ourselves and The Golden Casket I’m all for it. I thought this album perfectly captured our current times, while also having heartfelt moments like when we surprisingly got a peek into Brock’s life as a parent. This album is going to be in my rotation for a long time and if we have to wait close to a decade for another new record, just listening to The Golden Casket until then is enough for me.