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Perfect Disguise

On the 2000 album The Moon and Antarctica, Modest Mouse begins with "Third Planet," one of the great songs in recent American rock. Opening with a few solitary chords plucked by guest musician and lap steel guitarist Ben Blankenship, "Third Planet" thrusts the listener into a melancholy world of self-doubt and wandering, a place that feels distant from civilization. Then, just as drummer Jeremiah Green and bassist Eric Judy kick in, lead guitarist Isaac Brock sings, "Everything that keeps me together is falling apart/I've got this thing that I consider my only art of fucking people over," and the music stops for a split second, as if the world were made silent by the revelation.

Brock unveils himself as a young man loitering on the grass with you: "Your heart felt good/It was drippin' pitch and made of wood." Reclining on the grass "naked, shiverin' blue," a couple looks at the moon above, revealing that there used to be a third person too, perhaps a pregnancy, before the pair is left to its own desperations, its own fading affair. "The universe is shaped exactly like the Earth/If you go straight long enough, you'll end up where you were," Brock sings before suddenly concluding with the same lyric that he began with, having effectively fallen apart. "Third Planet" ends with ambiguity because he doesn't reveal what happened in the song yet manages to instill a sense of completeness, as if whatever happened should be.

Ask Brock what it means and he'll say: "I don't do shit like that. I don't explain things like that." He says this during a phone interview from his home in Portland, but it's the same line he's been giving to journalists for the past several years, ever since Modest Mouse exploded on the indie-rock scene in 1996 with This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About. "It's part of the riddle," he says. "When you get a CD or a book, it's up to you to read into what's going on inside your head, just to make it make sense to you. That's what I want [people to do with] my music."

Modest Mouse has ascended to the top of the heap on the shoulders of Brock's gift for crafting existential journeys such as "Third Planet." The band's history can be neatly summarized through its discography (barring the EP length The Fruit That Ate Itself and the odds-and-sods collection Sad Sappy Sucker). This Is a Long Drive portrayed their hometown of Issaquah, a rustic suburban community that is about 15 minutes away from Seattle, as a place of loneliness and alienation. The 1997 follow-up, The Lonesome Crowded West, was what Brock now characterizes as a "traveling album" and the inevitable sense of dislocation that comes from being in a successful touring band.

The Moon & Antarctica is the most disturbed of all, a weary, painful rebuke to the legendarily combative Seattle rock scene that was threatening to chew Brock up through vicious rumors -- encompassing everything from accusations of date-rape to allegations that he was just "an ass" who would "fuck you over" -- and ends with him fleeing the Pacific Northwest for the relative solitude of Gainesville. "I made a deal with the devil and things like that," Brock says. He then adds, reassuringly, "I joke! I joke! There's no deal. How can an atheist make a deal with the devil, dude?"

The mythology surrounding Modest Mouse doesn't do justice to the band or its music. First of all, if an hourlong conversation is any indication, Brock is more than a brooding songwriter; he's given to rambling, good-natured tangents. He muses on a trip he made to Miami two years ago to visit his friend Sam Beam, better-known as the critically acclaimed singer-songwriter Iron and Wine. "I played at an art gallery with Iron and Wine," he says. "I bought a Speedo because I was going around asking cops for directions and hanging out at Versace's place. Yeah, hot stuff! Then I thought of all the things I could do with the Speedo that just seemed wrong, because you're pretty much naked, man..."

Then there is The Moon & Antarctica. While restless numbers such as "Third Planet" and "Life Like Weeds" are its standouts, there is a handful of whimsical, funny cuts such as "Tiny City Made of Ashes," another tour song that finds Brock wearing "a T-shirt that says, 'The world is my ashtray. '" The first two albums found the group working through its Built to Spill influence, churning out gobs of edgy, stop-start emo-rock; The Moon & Antarctica incorporates country-rock and pastoral folk. It's elegiac, more profound than the group's earlier, agitated material. "I'm really into folk music," says Brock, adding that the band is currently recording a song for a Junior Kimbrough tribute album, scheduled for release on Fat Possum Records later this year.

Brock promises that this evolution continues on Modest Mouse's forthcoming album, Good News for People Who Love Bad News, scheduled for release April 10. Unfortunately, his label, Epic Records, isn't sending out any advance copies. "I don't have any idea what's going on," he says, before joking, "I'll be talking to them about that after the interview. I'll be putting on the daddy pants, going, 'Epic! Epic, come here!'

"They're so drunk with paranoia about the bootlegging thing," he continues. But he's not as concerned about it, since he makes most of his money from touring. "It's not like I get big ol' checks from Epic. If you're making zero dollars and all of a sudden you're not making zero dollars, where does that leave you? You're fine, so fuck it."

So what can fans expect from Good News for People Who Love Bad News? One track will feature the Dirty Dozen Brass Band; another finds Brock, as he puts it, "just playing a banjo and singing." The group began recording the album in early 2003 in Seattle. Six months later, only three songs were finished. "Our drummer lost the plot, fuckin' disappeared," Brock says. So he and Judy regrouped and relocated to the South, where they teamed up with producers Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips) and Dennis Herring (Camper van Beethoven) to record several tracks in Oxford, Mississippi, and Memphis, Tennessee.

"I watched the Wilco documentary [I Am Trying to Break Your Heart] about how their shit was imploding or whatever, and it was fuckin' baby food compared to what we were going through," he remembers. But he also believes the prolonged, difficult process made the band better. "It made me a better person, to be honest," he says, adding that Green plans to rejoin the band in the next several months. "I'm a much more focused person than when we started writing this record."

So is Good News as emotionally tumultuous as Modest Mouse's previous work, or does it reflect Brock's newfound optimism? Not surprisingly, he isn't telling. "I know it's different," he says. "I know how, but I don't know how to say it." He admits that he's not the kind of artist who can easily disassociate himself from, then analyze, his art: "Once it's done, it's kind of built into me."

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Mosi Reeves

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