For years, Pacific northwest indie band Modest Mouse thrived off making intricate, oddball rock. Few, including the band itself, likely imagined that the same group who made 1997’s quirky The Lonesome Crowded West would end up becoming a Grammy-nominated, stadium-playing act. So when Modest Mouse landed a massive mainstream hit with “Float On”—and went on to do just that—it was a surprising outcome.
Good News For People Who Love Bad News marked the beginning of Modest Mouse’s divisive turn from experimental mid-tier indie band to becoming a globally known name. With that surging popularity, there was bigger pressure to create a follow-up that would match the success of Good News and appeal to new fans, while still not alienating those who’d been following the band—and its formerly lo-fi, rough-around-the-edges sound—since the beginning.
With We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank, Modest Mouse fulfilled those expectations. Frontman Isaac Brock didn’t try to write the next “Float On,” instead continuing to approach his songwriting from the same complicated mentality as before. And while the album is as polished as Good News, it still carries plenty of experimentation throughout. Ship became the album to prove that, although Modest Mouse’s fanbase and sound changed, it didn’t have to compromise the innate oddness that made it such an exciting act in the first place—and it remains the band’s best post-“Float On” release.
The process of working on this album wasn’t smooth sailing at first, though. Guitarist Dann Gallucci quit in the middle of touring for the previous record. But frontman Isaac Brock decided to shoot for the stars—and invited former The Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr to co-write and play guitar on Ship. Marr accepted, and that unexpected combination proved brilliant, sparking a creative breakthrough for both camps, with Modest Mouse and the famed guitarist creating music that felt unlike anything either had worked on before. (Marr was only supposed to record with Modest Mouse for ten days, but the chemistry with the band was so intense that the guitarist canceled his flight back to England to stay in Portland and, later, touring as the band’s guitarist.)
What makes Ship stand out, besides the inclusion of Marr, is the group’s commitment to the record’s theme. The LP, once referred to by Brock as a “nautical balalaika carnival romp,” was reportedly initially envisioned as a concept album about a boat crew that dies in every song. The concept didn’t fully pan out, but the theme allowed for the band to incorporate a wider arrangement of instruments that create the feel of a life at sea, including the accordion, banjo, and horns.
Ship opens with “March Into The Sea,” a track that adopts a sea shanty-inspired style. The first instrument heard is the accordion, evoking the imagery of being aboard a pirate ship. Brock takes it further by singing in the punctuated manner of shanties, but instead of making the intonation melodic, he alternates between singing serenely and giving the song a grungier growl.
After “March” introduces the album’s concept in a very direct way, it’s the next song, “Dashboard,” that really serves as the route into the record. Chosen as the first single, it’s an effervescent song that has far more to offer than simply “’Float On’ but with horns.”
At first listen, it doesn’t particularly sound like something you’d expect from Modest Mouse. But before long, Brock’s distinctive vocals and signature sense of humor shine through. Brock references Planes, Trains, And Automobiles—ironically, the movie about nearly every mode of transportation that isn’t a ship—throughout the song: “The dashboard melted but we still have the radio,” “Well, the windshield was broken but I love the fresh air you know.” Musically, it’s quite different, but thematically, it does feel like a companion song to “Float On”: Even when things go to shit, you must keep going.
The band balances its moments of experimentation with a still-newfound poppier approach to songs, making the switch between styles every couple of tracks or so. “Dashboard” is followed by “Fire It Up,” the closest thing sonically to “Float On,” but without the infectious hook that made for such a big hit. The focus is on Brock’s vocals instead of the instruments, and showcases the frontman’s range as he shifts from a snarl to coos.
Then there’s “Florida,” the middle ground between typical Modest Mouse and the band’s new, more accessible sound. Brock’s vocals are jumpy, with a busy sing-talk approach. But that’s cleverly contrasted by having The Shins frontman James Mercer on backing vocals, bringing a gentle, warm touch to the song. (His vocals also appear in “We’ve Got Everything” and “Missed The Boat.”) It’s one of the band’s most complex tracks, going back and forth from poppy to gritty. That complexity is also present in its lyrics, spit out rapid-fire by Brock (“Although we often wondered / It was no thing of wonder, the shit that flew from our minds”).
But the dark horse on the album is “Parting Of The Sensory.” It’s not the most popular track off of Ship, but it’s maybe the most impressive. “Parting Of The Sensory” is one of Modest Mouse’s most experimental works, with a combination of traditional instrumentation—fiddle, banjo, balalaika, and Marr on guitar—and otherworldly synth effects, to produce a stunning result (with album producer Dennis Herring and musician Naheed Simjee doing the claps and stomps). The words are nihilistic: “Someday you will die somehow and something’s gonna steal your carbon.” But the lyrical darkness is almost disguised with such a catchy chorus.
It’s a tough song to top, but Modest Mouse follows it up with another that’s one of the best in the band’s career: “Missed The Boat.” It features some of Brock’s strongest songwriting, with clever, attention-grabbing lyrics (“While we’re on the subject / Could we change the subject now? / I was knocking on your ear’s door / But you were always out.”)
It’s open to interpretation. It works as a breakup song, about pretending everything is fine while still dealing with the pain of its dissolution (“Was it ever worth it? / Was there all that much to gain? / Well, we knew we’d missed the boat / And we’d already missed the plane”). Yet it also fits as auto-critique, with Brock seemingly acknowledging that while the band’s success looks great from the outside, “leveling up” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be (“Oh, and we carried it all so well / As if we got a new position / Oh, and I laugh all the way to hell / Saying, ‘Yes this is a fine promotion’”). It’s one of the most pared-down songs on the record, and that’s perhaps what works best about it.
The same goes for “Little Motel,” another number that allows Brock’s voice and words to shine without relying on the bells and whistles (in this case, literally) of the instrumentation. It’s a song that doesn’t entirely fit within the rest of the album—it’s too soft compared to everything around it—but it’s so gorgeous that it’d be hard to imagine Ship without it.
The song, written by Brock after a fight with his partner, is one of the most compelling in the band’s entire body of work. That’s in part thanks to Marr, whom Brock credited for “saving” the song with the “twinkly, single-string stuff.” And by getting personal in a manner uncommon for him, Brock’s lyrical vulnerability gives the song wonderful depth: “We treat mishaps like sinking ships and / I know that I don’t want to be out to drift / Well, I can see it in your eyes like I taste your lips and / They both tell me that we’re better than this.”
Brock doesn’t seem comfortable staying in those quieter moments, though. “Little Motel” is immediately followed by some of the most guitar-heavy songs on the record: “Stream Engenius” and “Spitting Venom.” The latter in particular succeeds; what begins as a simple acoustic track steadily transforms into an electric guitar-focused, angsty number, bursting with aggression. While his lyrics often veer on the vague side, “Spitting Venom” has heartbreakingly literal details: “Well, we went downtown and we sat in the rain / Well, looking all direction and waiting for a train / Thought over / It’s all over.” It’s yet more proof that some of Ship’s best standouts are those emotionally charged songs where Brock lets it all out.
Modest Mouse ends the record with two of its poppiest tracks: “People As Places As People” and “Invisible.” But even those lighter moments never are devoid of Modest Mouse’s grittiness; Brock frequently pairs the brightest riffs with his most aggressive vocals.
We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank may not have been readily received by many longstanding fans upon its 2007 release; even The A.V. Club’s former staffer Katie Rife once wrote it was the album that made her stop listening to Modest Mouse altogether. But with a major label like Epic behind it, there was no way the band could return to its DIY approach; instead, Ship allowed the band to test the limits of its oddities while still making accessible music. Looking back nearly two decades later, Ship comes across like Modest Mouse has something to prove—showing the breadth of its talents and refusing to let “Float On” define its career.