To paraphrase the timeless Forrest Gump, Modest Mouse albums are like a box of chocolates; you never know what kinds of songs you’re gonna get.
You could have a beautiful song with an epic ending like “Talkin’ Shit About a Pretty Sunset,” a wild, weird 11-minute jam like “Trucker’s Atlas,” or a chaotic song like “Breakthrough” that makes you want to shout like singer Isaac Brock and bounce around the room.
All of these traits are on display on Modest Mouse’s 2000 album The Moon & Antarctica, their first on a major label. Despite the jump to a bigger label with Epic Records, Modest Mouse only continued to grow into one of the greatest bands in indie rock. While some bands might drastically change their sound when they make the jump, Modest Mouse instead put together one of the greatest works in their career. They created an album where you don’t have to skip a single song, making each track feel like they’re all connected and are as important as the next one up the track listing.
The Moon & Antarctica lives up to its name throughout the 59-minute run time. At times throughout this album, you’ll feel like you’re floating through the bitter cold of space or walking through the frozen tundra of Antarctica (hopefully doing your best to avoid wild packs of dogs). Naturally, the themes of dark and cold dominate the record and take the band down a road less traveled compared to their previous two albums.
Right off the bat, the album delivers a stretch of songs that are ready to swoop you up and take you off to a distant place. “3rd Planet” is a track that might seem like it’s all about the Earth, but if you dig a little deeper, there’s actually much more to it. “Gravity Rides Everything” is one of the prettiest songs the band has ever written, with Brock gently singing each vocal over guitar riffs that make you feel things. This feeling of being off somewhere in the atmosphere continues on “Dark Center of the Universe” until the band sends you crashing back to Earth with the manic sounds of wailing guitars, which was a sound they perfected on The Lonesome Crowded West.
Prior to The Moon and Antarctica, Modest Mouse could sometimes draw their songs out longer than they needed to be. Producer Brian Deck did a great job on this album by tightening things up where they needed to be and still showed what it was about Modest Mouse that makes them great.
Brock put on a Masterclass of guitar playing throughout this album, whether it’s calmly strumming along on “Perfect Disguise” or shredding away on “The Stars Are Projectors.” He also goes to show off his signature way of wittily delivering lyrics, like on “Paper Thin Walls.” Bass player Eric Judy unleashes a bass line for the ages on “Tiny Cities Made Of Ashes,” which still remains a song that’s impossible to sit still through and will likely leave you wanting to be “drinkin’, drinkin’, drinkin’ Coca, Coca Cola.” Meanwhile, drummer Jeremiah Green shines on tracks like “A Different City” and “Alone Down There.” In addition to the regulars of the band at the time, Tyler Reilly also puts a beautiful touch on the album with his violin on certain songs.
In an album filled with highlights, “The Cold Part” remains the track I can’t help but keep coming back to. Modest Mouse were able to craft a song that’s haunting, yet peaceful. Between the guitars calling out like they’re coming out of the darkness from a distance, the steady percussion, Brock’s hushed vocals, and the chilling tones of Reilly’s violin, this song finds a way to climb into your soul. It’s the perfect song to listen to at night if you want to unplug and let yourself get carried away from our current cold world.
I admittedly didn’t hear The Moon & Antarctica until I discovered the band through their mainstream breakout album, Good News for People Who Love Bad News. Once I did, it was an immediate surreal experience, and I just let myself get lost in their music. I still have this same experience whenever I give this album a spin, but I’m finding it’s starting to hit me in ways it hasn’t before as I get older.
When I was younger, I locked into the musicianship of the group and didn’t read too much into the lyrics. Now that I’m on the verge of turning 30, the lyrics sometimes stand out more than the instrumentals. For example, “Lives” hits in a way it never has before. The track opens with Brock strumming along on his guitar before he says, “Everyone’s afraid of their own life / If you could be anything you want / I bet you’d be disappointed, am I right?.” Just when you think there is a lot about life to unpack there, you’re smacked with a bridge reminding you that life is short and at times it’s hard to remember we’re all mortal.
This theme carries over into “Life Like Weeds,” where Brock opens himself up to accept people in his life as rocks who help keep him grounded. Instead of wasting time pushing people away, the singer pushes towards letting others in. Heavy stuff, right? The album then comes to an end with “What People Are Made Of,” a track that tackles both death and the afterlife. Brock ends the record with the answer to this song title, which is a not so subtle reminder that all humans “ain’t made of nothin’ but water and shit.”
The best Modest Mouse album is always a heavily debated topic amongst fans. Many have the qualifications to be considered the masterpiece of the discography, making it not so clear which one should hold the title. The Moon & Antarctica remains a true contender, especially since it’s a complete, well-rounded effort that went on to make a huge impact. There’s no question this one had a ton of influence on the bands who would arrive years later (go listen to “I Came As A Rat” and tell me The Front Bottoms didn’t take a page out of this book). Whether you’re on the third planet or somewhere in the dark center of the universe, The Moon and Antarctica sounds just as fresh today as it did 20 years ago.