The Moon & Antarctica: Still prescient at 20

Isaac Brock can see the future. There’s no other explanation as to how he created two successive albums that were visions of wildly different dystopian futures and somehow has seen them both come true. In 1997, Modest Mouse, with Brock as their unhinged frontman, released The Lonesome Crowded West, a monolithic flurry of rage against encroaching urban decay, full of imagery of crumbling shopping malls, seas of concrete, and characters whose lives radically shift due to these circumstances, never for the better. Songs like “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine” and “Polar Opposites” mined anger and ennui from rampant consumerism and substance abuse with Brock yowling about “drink[ing] away the part of the day that I cannot sleep away.” Fast-forward to the present day, where corporations offer platitudes about how you should be mindful of your environmental impact while they dump millions of litres of chemicals into the ocean and plunder the earth for profit, where consuming is considered an act of resistance, where a virus instantaneously eradicated the purpose of our most dour, lifeless architecture, The Lonesome Crowded West sounds uniquely vital.

After The Lonesome Crowded West, Modest Mouse got signed to a major label and used all the money and tools that came with that contract to create The Moon & Antarctica, released 20 years ago last week. The Moon & Antarctica is a wildly different album than The Lonesome Crowded West in both sound and content, but a striking similarity is that its peculiar and dim vision for the future also pretty much came true.

A lot of rock bands in the late 90s and early 00s were making albums with terrifying predictions of what lied ahead, probably something to do with the dot-com bubble bursting and the resulting economic recession (I’m not sure though, I’m not old enough to have any real memory of the sociopolitical stresses of the time period). The standard-bearer for this type of music at the time (and probably still) was Radiohead, who released two towering albums in 1997 and 2000 in OK Computer and Kid A, respectively. Radiohead’s lyrical themes concerned the encroaching surveillance state, the rise of complex and mystifying technology, and the increasing emotional divide between people, issues that are undoubtedly more pressing now than they were then.

But where Radiohead looked outward into a cold and uncaring world, Modest Mouse looked inward. The Moon & Antarctica explores the great river to where the tributaries of anonymity, emotional distance, and the dangers of technology flow: the loss of interpersonal bonds, lack of community, consumption as solace, and an uncaring God who is probably just a projection of a hateful and rigid society. A comparison I keep coming back to concerns the Stephen King short story The Mist (and its excellent film adaptation): sure, the monsters are scary. But the real terror in the film comes not from the monsters, but how we act as a society when we’re confronted by them.

As one might expect from an album that tackles ideas this all-encompassing, The Moon & Antarctica is not a particularly easy listen. It’s relatively long, at about an hour, and also full of dense textures and warped melodies all propping up Brock’s distorted yowling. It’s not something I’ll just throw on when I’m not sure what to listen to, but once in a while, with the right combination of setting and mood, The Moon & Antarctica can transcend. In a word, I’d describe the feel of the album as queasy, with guitars that bend their notes so high you can feel the strain on the strings, enveloping synthesizers played backwards, and noisy freakouts where Brock and the band pile on top of each other and cover it all with a discomfiting layer of noise.

Contrary to what I just said, though, the album kicks off with two of the prettiest songs Modest Mouse has ever committed to tape. The second one, “Gravity Rides Everything” opens with some little synth crescendos and strummed acoustic guitar while Brock multi-tracks his voice to talk about “when we die, some sink and some lay / but at least I don’t see you float away,” using the very real inevitability of gravity as a metaphor for the inevitability of fate: “it all just falls, falls right into place.” The music was pretty enough to soundtrack a 2014 ad for a Nissan Quest (which I can’t for the life of me find on YouTube).

The leadoff song, though, is a different animal entirely. “3rd Planet” is one of my favourite songs ever, and a commanding opening statement from Modest Mouse. Cycling rapidly between the earth-bound and ethereal, physical and metaphysical, it’s hard to put into words the sheer density of ideas present in the song. From its opening salvo of “Everything that keeps me together is falling apart / I got this thing that I consider my only art / of fucking people over,” Brock explores the liminal space between self-examination and self-flagellation, of looking so deeply inward that you become indistinguishable from the space in which you exist. “The Universe is shaped exactly like the Earth, if you go straight long enough you’ll end up where you were” may sound like basement-stoner talk on paper, but becomes an epiphany from Brock – a reminder that the temporal and spatial are inextricably linked, and perhaps conspiring to ensure that no matter our choices sometimes we end up just going nowhere.

Specifically, “3rd Planet” is about the grief of losing a child and the personal and spiritual reckoning (“babies-cum-angels fly around you / reminding you we used to be three and not two”) that comes with loss. But it’s also about being angry at an indifferent universe and the illusions we create to shield ourselves from that indifference (“the third planet is sure they’re being watched / by an eye in the sky that can’t be stopped”). It’s about the liberation and fear that comes with understanding that you’re truly alone, and it’s a perfect thesis for the rest of The Moon & Antarctica.

I’ve always thought of The Moon & Antarctica as a suite in three parts. The first consists of the two aforementioned tracks plus “Dark Center of the Universe” and “Perfect Disguise” and is all about how the metaphysical shapes our existence as individuals. It’s mostly grounded in reality, full of acerbic wit — see “it took a lot of work to be the ass that I am / And I’m real damn sure that anyone can / equally, easily, fuck you over” from “Dark Center of the Universe” — and obsessed with examining personal failures. It’s an examination of how we connect with the world, not in a one-with-nature sense, but moreso how the indifferent machinations of our world place so much of our lives out of our control, and wrestling with that reality.

The second part of the album begins with the jittery dance-rock excursion of “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” which signals a literal journey into dystopia. The song couples staccato guitar with hushed vocals against consumerism and wastefulness (“I’m wearin’ myself a T-shirt that says ‘the world is my ashtray’”) and is generally the most fun song on the album. The song also contains the incredibly prophetic “gonna get dressed up in plastic / gonna shake hands with the masses” lyric, a perfect encapsulation of our current hyper-polarized discourse on coronavirus.

The remainder of this section of the album, though, sees the music get blurred and textural, while the lyrics become more ruminative and heady. The interludes of “A Different City” and “Alone Down There” are tonally similar observations on loneliness and solitude, with the latter ending with a throat-shredding plea from Brock: “I don’t want you to be alone down there.” As the section continues, Brock slowly untethers from Earth, floating above it and waving goodbye on the dirge “The Cold Part” and seeing a culmination with the epic “The Stars Are Projectors,” an 8-minute multi-part ride focusing again on the rigidity of fate. It ends with a four minute instrumental flurry, the sound of the band drifting through space towards a predetermined future.

The segue to the final section of the album, as I see it, is the horror-folk vignette “Wild Packs of Family Dogs,” which sees feral dogs absorb the narrator’s dog into their ranks and then proceed to eat the narrator’s sister. Leaving the similarities to the 30–50 feral hogs tweet aside, the song allows the band to crash back to the ground and begin the final chapter of the album. This final portion mirrors the start of the album through use of concrete imagery, but is concerned more with the interpersonal connections as well as our connection to omnipotent beings; how these connections are forged and how they strain. It’s the most accessible portion of the album, but also the most dour. “Paper Thin Walls,” like its title suggests, is about loss of privacy in an increasingly connected world – “everyone’s a voyeur, they’re watching me watch them watch me right now,” Brock riddles. “Lives” provides succinct summaries for each of the album’s themes: personal turmoil (“my hell, comes from inside, comes from inside myself / why fight this?”), crumbling relationships with God and man (“God is a woman and my mom she is a witch”) and life’s fleetingness and our inability to process that fact (“it’s hard to remember / to live, before you die”). The album ends of the full-on rocker “What People Are Made Of,” and that song ends on a note both revulsive and familiar: “and the one this you taught me / ‘bout human beings was this / they ain’t made of nothing but water and shit.”

The Moon & Antarctica still feels vital 20 years on because of the quality of the music, sure, but also because now more than ever we’re struggling to connect with each other, atrophying from a lack of human companionship. We turn our back on God because we realize he’s turned his back on us, and see that the other side contains only darkness. We’re detached emotionally and physically, and until we’ve made some massive structural changes to our society, things won’t get better. Modest Mouse saw that happening twenty years ago, and The Moon & Antarctica will surely continue to soundtrack our desperate human condition for years to come.

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