In today’s fickle indie-rock universe where a band is considered passé by the time it graces its first magazine cover, Modest Mouse stands out as something of an anomaly. Proving itself one of the rare college radio bands that can weather signing with a major, a TV commercial, a three-and-a-half-year hiatus, a side-project and the departure of a founding member (drummer Jeremiah Green)—Isaac Brock and his Mouseketeers have remained surprisingly true to their uneasy blend of intensely fractured guitar rock, troubled yelping and impending existential collapse. Their fanbase has largely stayed loyal as well, waiting hungrily for EP and b-side crumbs to fall from the table, all the while nervously watching the band teeter on the brink of loud mouthing its way toward alienating label bosses, and hanging on every word of innuendo hinting at this album’s imminent arrival.
As both the follow-up to Modest Mouse’s arguable classic, 2000’s The Moon and Antarctica, and the recipient of near-immobilizing hype, the band’s fourth full-length is in the unenviable position of having to vindicate its drawn-out gestation period. Surprisingly though, Good News for People Who Love Bad News manages to justify the suffocating hype around it, branching off from the atmospheric doom dramas of the last Modest Mouse album into more grounded textural and conceptual territory. Having enlisted ace producer Dennis Herring (Camper Van Beethoven, Throwing Muses)—and with Brock no longer multi-tracking his vocals into a wall of anxiety—the band’s music has seldom been expressed in such bold and tangible strokes. The result is an album that’s immediate—from the minute The Dirty Dozen Brass Band strikes up the opening cacophony until the exhausted and convincingly forewarning “The Good Times Are Killing Me” brings the record to its logical conclusion.
True masters of contrast, Brock and company split the album into three vaguely realized parts, easing out of the gate amidst a series of pristine, jangly, multi-layered guitar-pop; bounding into a grittier guitar-heavy middle; and stumbling off in a rustically bucolic haze. The delicately paired strings and guitar shimmer of the stoically withdrawn “World At Large” and falsetto back-up vocals of the Prince-ish “The Ocean Breathes Salty” are matched by the shout-along throwdown of “Bury Me with It” and the infectious groove stomp of “Dancehall.” As always, Brock stands front-and-center, delivering his songs with strangely possessed conviction one minute, a baleful sense of resignation the next. His phrasing, still unevenly metered and self-consciously directive, guides the listener with unexpectedly sharp wit and deft wordplay through songs that shouldn’t work (his Tom Waits saloon-dirge homage “The Devils Work Day”) along with ones that obviously do (the burned-out fiddle- and-piano balladry of “Blame It on the Tetons.”
More than anything, Good News is the sound of Isaac Brock finally coming to grips with the reality that he, almost by the sheer force of his personality and audacious will, can superimpose the Modest Mouse logo over just about any musical concept he desires. Owing as much of their exceptional character to his preternaturally balanced arrangements as they do to his perplexingly defiant-yet-uneasy gait, Brock’s narratives are enriched by an ever-increasing sense of maturity and authority. It’s as if his struggles have left him bloodied but wiser for it. Good News is a surprisingly gripping and convincingly triumphant return for a band that by all accounts should’ve long ago succumbed to permanent hiatus.