This is as good a facsimile of a Tom Waits song that anyone has ever recorded, and ‘fake Tom Waits’ is almost its own genre. That’s a compliment. Modest Mouse has managed to get some hit songs on the radio, but deep – or not that deep, really – down inside, they’re hopeless eccentrics. So much so that one wonders how can someone so weird become so popular. Enough consumers apparently have good taste to allow at least a few confirmed weirdos to make a career of it, and if that doesn’t restore some measure of faith in humanity, I don’t know, go watch a cat video or something. Personally, I still find humanity pretty suspect, but discovering Modest Mouse – well after they became widely successful, because I’m a square, apparently – did help restore my faith in pop culture. It ain’t dead, you know.
It’s weird to think that Modest Mouse may already be nostalgia music for some people. But they’re a ‘new band’! So much time has passed! This album came out the year I turned 21, which, obviously, is kind of a formative age. I experienced a huge wave of music discovery around that time, adding more new groups to my roster of favorites than I ever thought possible. Aside from making the kind of poor decisions that you don’t know are going to completely derail the course of your life, you spend your early adult years just learning to be a person, and the tastes you pick up should, if you’re lucky, stay with you for the long haul. So many things have fallen away since then; acquaintances, possessions, habits, brain cells, time zones. Many memories have had to be willfully blanked out; mistakes learned from, or not. I feel no warm, fuzzy feelings, no nostalgic glow for those years. But I remember listening to Modest Mouse on road trips, back when driving from one state to another with a box of CDs was somehow a feasible activity. I don’t go on road trips anymore, I don’t own CDs, I don’t live in the same state, I don’t talk to the same people. But I still listen to Modest Mouse like they’re new.
“You wasted life, why wouldn’t you waste death?”
I listened to this song many, many times before it dawned on me how existential it is. It’s just so flippin’ cheery! You bop around and sing along and you don’t notice that you’ve just delved into depths beyond what the average pop song has to say. Modest Mouse long ago graduated from being an underrated indie band, but popularity aside, I still think Isaac Brock deserves a lot more credit for his lyrical delvings. I mean, I wasn’t planning to sit and question the true meaning of existence this morning, and now I am. What does it mean to waste one’s life and what constitutes making good use of it, anyway? You certainly can’t make that judgement for another person. I’m not sure you can even make it for yourself. Am I going to lie upon my death bed and regret that time I didn’t steal that one guy’s fancy watch while he was asleep? (I deeply regret not having stolen that guy’s watch.) Most people would say the obvious thing – that how well you’ve lived your life depends on the difference you’ve made in the lives of others. But what if you were unhappy and unfulfilled the whole time? What if you regret having raised all of those children when you could’ve been doing something nice for yourself? Did your grandmother, on her last day alive, look around at the family she raised and secretly decide she would have been better off if she’d taken a bus to Hollywood like she had dreamed of doing? The inevitable conclusion, I guess, is that the value of your life is what you make of it, because life has no inherent value.