Between the Polaroid photos in the lyric booklet of desolate winter highways, the lyrics, and the general feel of the songs themselves, The Lonesome Crowded West quickly gives you everything you need to understand the spirit of the album. Which is: the feeling of wanting to travel or travelling, of going to other places to get away or to change your life, and ultimately feeling the futility in it all. Desperately you want to travel, but having gone there you know it hasn't changed a thing or having not gone because you predict it won't change a thing. This is an album of existential longing and religious denial. The existence of god--any god--is denied and the purpose of life is elusive. Haven't you ever felt the desire to get away from it all, the pure pull of travel, only to think about it and come to the realization that, essentially, everything is the same everywhere?? If there's nothing to do in your hometown, well, millions of people in the world are thinking the same thing. And if here's no god, well, that's OK, but what are we here for?? Better get on the road and do some thinking...
Modest Mouse's first album, This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About, began Isaac Brock's exploration of themes of travel, what life is about, and atheism (or at the very least the questioning of Christianity) but it was with The Lonesome Crowded West that they reach their finest flowering. Yeah, their first album is really good, and the albums after Lonesome touch on some of these themes, but it's at its most focused here. 1997 saw a lot of now-classic albums but The Lonesome Crowded West is one of the least recognized. Either Modest Mouse's next release, The Moon & Antarctica, steals all the thunder or their mainstream breakthrough Good News For People Who Loves Bad News does. Well, those are both debatable, but I find something so much more...pure about '97 era Modest Mouse. They were still on an indie label and still making music that sounded full yet was made with only 3 members. The Moon & Antarctica was the band unleashing their inner studio masterminds, a dense, fascinating, lyrically and musically layered work but it lost something with the increased scope.
At any rate, the ideas and themes explored on this album are but half of its greatness. You may be surprised someday, listening to The Lonesome Crowded West after a long absence, just how many excellent songs you forgot were on here. 'Cowboy Dan' is a huge fan favorite, six minutes long and not a wasted second in there--starting out dark and intense before getting into a winding down section at the two minute mark, every guitar note and word drawn out patiently in a languid, psychedelic introspection. And then immediately it slides back into the dark intensity. 'Long Distance Drunk' has always been a personal favorite--"it doesn't seem like anything you're saying or doing is making any sense"--and does a lot with just a repetitive, drum-driven groove. Still, this album wouldn't be half the creature it is without 'Truckers Atlas', which is a ten minute travelogue that musically and lyrically sums up the album while letting the band stretch out. Keep in mind this isn't the jammy stretching out of, say, Built To Spill. Moreso it's just a (predictably) great song to drive to as it keeps going and going.
I've tried to make it through this without using the word 'zeitgeist', but every time I listen to this album I feel like it captures the spirit of the age. The Lonesome Crowded West puts it there even in the title: it's about feeling alone in large group of people, in a crowded room; living in a heavily populated area yet you can't relate to anyone or anything. It's about nameless desperation and boredom gnawing at you, pacing you around in your apartment or house, feeling like you have to go somewhere or do something but knowing that there's nowhere you can go and nothing you can do that will truly help you. It's about denying religion and thus the afterlife but still wanting to live even if the living is hard and full of worry and questions about purpose. Finally, it's about acceptance of all these things:
he said that god takes care of himself
and you of you
it's all nice on ice alright
and it's not day
and it's not night
but it's all nice on ice alright.