Modest Mouse's first two albums were ambitious affairs to the point where one wondered where Isaac Brock were go from there. This was doubly interesting because the band signed with Epic for their third album. What would Brock do with major label funding (and pressure) after managing so much with more utilitarian, indie rock tools?? As it turned out, he would produce one of the decade's best albums...and then fall into a steady decline.
But that's a different review. The Moon & Antarctica will seal Brock's name in the history books as a true genius. The album tackles heavy issues of life, death, humanity's place in the universe, and so on. There was always a psychedelic and philosophical undercurrent to Modest Mouse's music but it saw its fullest flowering here. At the same time, the music and production are, respectively, bigger and crisper than before, giving Brock all kinds of new tools and gadgets with which to bring his music to life. Even on the biggest sounding songs from the first two albums, such as 'Cowboy Dan', you never felt like it was impossible for three dudes to play that music. The Moon & Antarctica is a very clear studio masterpiece sort of thing, where no consideration is given for how the band will pull the songs off in a live setting. No wonder the band had to add extra members for the next two albums.
Perhaps the greatest strength of this release is its consistency and variety. Brock was always an underrated and far more interesting songwriter than he was given credit for and now he had the tools to match his ambitions. From the bouncy, danceable 'Tiny Cities Made Of Ashes' to the spacey 'Gravity Rides Everything' to the downright catchy 'Paper Thin Walls', The Moon & Antarctica visits many disparate styles yet hangs together as a whole. I've always been fascinated by the middle of the album, too: a three song stretch from 'The Cold Part' to 'The Stars Are Projectors' that lingers in the air, thick and dark. I know a lot of people hate this part because they feel it kills the momentum, but if you invest in the album as an experience, it's quite gripping to emerge out the other side into the album's more dynamic final third. Normally I hate albums that are longer than 45ish minutes, but if the band does something interesting with the longer CD format I'm willing to accept it.
On a side note, I don't know what the point of the 2004 re-mastered/expanded edition was, other than cashing in on the hype for the forthcoming Good News For People Who Love Bad News album. It's been too long since I heard the original version, but I don't think the mix is that different. True, I do like the new album cover better (though the original had a nice nod to Wish You Were Here with its shaking hands) but I don't think the bonus tracks are worth the "expanded edition" moniker. They're merely 4 songs from some kind of radio session that add nothing to the album--in fact, the swear words are edited out.
For me, The Moon & Antarctica represents the perfect meeting point between Modest Mouse's old 'weirder and angrier' sound and their modern 'polished and expanded' sound. Though I like bits and pieces of the releases that came after, The Moon & Antarctica is their last unqualified masterpiece and one of the decade's essential releases.