Modest Mouse's 'We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank' was the moment they entered the mainstream

An in-depth look at the band's most divisive record. 

There comes a time in every indie band’s career in which they begin to build a solid following, their sound becomes a little less lo-fi – usually because they reach a point where they can afford to record with decent equipment – and their ‘true’ fans accuse them of selling out or becoming too mainstream. For Modest Mouse, this point came with their 2007 album, We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank. 

Given the record marked the band’s fifth full-length studio album, a sonic progression was only natural. Although, the release was widely criticised for employing a more commercial sound than that of their previous efforts. In the band’s beginnings, one could expect a Modest Mouse song to consist of anything from a cacophony of barely audible croaking backed by a simple three-chord melody to abrasive kazoo playing and distorted vocals. Always ones to explore every uncharted inch of their creative well, Modest Mouse's sound would continue to develop over the next decade.

The album’s predecessor, Good News For People Who Love Bad News, was the first sign the band were edging towards a new era – ‘Float On’ became the band’s most recognisable track after scoring ample airplay – even though it was well-received. However, one could hardly call We Were Dead unoriginal. The album had strong nautical themes and was originally devised as a concept album revolving around a ship crew, one by one facing their demise with each song.

Part of the band’s new sound can be attributed to their latest recruit, former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr. Despite only remaining part of Modest Mouse for the album and a handful of subsequent tours, Marr has consistently praised the band’s creativity since. In his 2016 memoir, Set The Boy Free, Marr states: “As I listened to what we were doing it occurred to me that I had no idea what this music actually was. One of the drummers was playing trashy, the other drummer was doing something completely different, the bass playing sounded like it was from a Celtic tune and the keyboards were a sea shanty. On top of it all, Isaac’s guitar was raging mad punk rock and I was doing something punchy and melodic.”

In addition to Marr’s contribution to the album, We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank also features backing vocals from The Shins’ James Mercer on ‘Florida’, ‘Missed The Boat’ and ‘We’ve Got Everything’. Mercer’s more conventionally palatable vocals hit the notes that Brock’s growls couldn't quite reach.

Between clanging, reverberated guitar riffs and whispered, shouted, spoken and snarled lyrics, it’s easy to see why Brock was miffed by accusations the band had gone mainstream. Employing instruments of every shape and size, from an accordion to a brass section, We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank holds just the right amount of grit to keep it from ever sounding too clean.

Brock’s lyricism is widely recognised as one of Modest Mouse’s most alluring elements. His eloquence, focus on his personal experience with depression and cynicism towards religion resonated with the group’s misfit fans. This is exceedingly true on We Were Dead, which showcases the frontman’s propensity for poetic, riddle-like diatribe. Lines such as “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” ('Missed the Boat') and “I could have my mind erased/And still not know exactly what I don't already know” ('Florida') couldn’t be further from the easily digestible verses churned out in mainstream hits.

Of his time working with Brock, Marr also wrote: “In Isaac I’d found someone whose words I could read just for personal pleasure, whether I was involved or not." Through embracing a nautical theme largely focusing on death for this project, Brock breaks away from the themes which usually form the band’s work and taps into a previously untouched reserve of ingenuity.

Perhaps my opinion that this album is underrated or unfairly dismissed is biased because it served as my introduction to the band, who are now my favourite. Not long after YouTube blossomed, I found myself typing the band’s name into the platform’s search bar to suss them out, having seen them mentioned in a magazine. I figured a band named Modest Mouse must certainly have something interesting up their sleeve.

‘Little Motel’ was one of the first tracks that caught my intrigue, with the music clip featuring a heart-wrenching story of mother and son played in reverse. As Brock’s raspy whispers and a twinkling melody wormed their way into my ears, I quickly found myself scouring through the band’s discography.

While the album’s lead single ‘Dashboard’ inched the band closer to commercial success, tracks like ‘Spitting Venom’, ‘Fly Trapped In A Jar’ and ‘Parting of the Sensory’ kept the prospect of crossing over into mainstream territory at a comfortable distance. Each track paraded everything weird and wonderful about Modest Mouse that fans have grown to love — albeit with a somewhat shinier finish. 

This article is part of a new series titled 'Ode to an Album'.