Longtime Modest Mouse fans — a ragtag assemblage of college-rock lifers, jam-band nodders, and ahead-of-the-curve cool dads — were likely taken aback by the success of 2004’s 1.5 million-selling Good News for People Who Love Bad News. Here was a band whose lead singer, Isaac Brock, paired his serene guitar lines with a jarring, from-the-spleen growl. Even the album’s deceptively feel-good breakthrough single, “Float On,” centered on car crashes and lost jobs. Not since Rupert Holmes’ “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” has a radio hit mined so many stark-reality doldrums for such a joyous chorus.
We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank is the band’s sixth album, and it’s just as contradictory as Good News. While Brock’s pop instincts have never been more refined, his jitteriness has never run more rampant. No song better sets the tone for the record’s unsettled vibe than the first single, “Dashboard,” which has a pumping disco beat and lively guitar washes, but hinges on a don’t-look-over-your-shoulder mantra: “The dashboard melted / But we still had the radio.”
“Dashboard” is one of the few songs not to echo Ship‘s titular theme: The album opens with the headbanging shanty “March Into the Sea,” and from there it’s a series of nautical nightmares. On “Little Motel,” Brock laments that “we treat mishaps like sinking ships,” while the embittered “Parting of the Sensory” captures an ocean jaunt gone awry, noting that “any shithead who had ever walked / Could take the ship and do a much finer job” (which, even if it’s not intended as a jab at Bush, will certainly be embraced as one). It’s probably not a coincidence that “Florida” — a guitar-tangled kiss-off with a knockout chorus assist from the Shins’ James Mercer — is about a state that’s 80 percent surrounded by water.
Mercer guests on two other songs, and his high-flying vocals make for a good match not only sonically, but also culturally. Hearing him harmonize with Brock on the lovely front-porch acoustic ballad “Missed the Boat” brings back the days when everybody in the Northwest seemed to show up on their friends’ records. Harder to discern is the contribution of Johnny Marr; anyone expecting Mouse Is Murder will find the ex-Smith fitting unobtrusively into the group’s gently abrasive sound (though he does step to the forefront on “Invisible” and “People as Places as People,” which feature his twisty guitar sighs). But Modest Mouse remain a depository for Brock’s oft-inscrutable musings, and Ship finds him as pissed off and recklessly optimistic as anybody can be in these times. It’s a road-trip sing-along album not for vacationers, but for escapees.