By 1997, the shine of grunge was wearing off and a new crop of bands was taking music in a more emotionally honest direction. Whether or not their members realized it, they were building the foundation for what would come to be labeled as emo. 1997: The Year Emo Broke explores the albums that drove this burgeoning genre that year.
Modest Mouse would likely not be considered an emo band by music aficionados. For most people, the band perfectly embodies peak mid-aughts indie rock crossover, complete with cameos on The O.C . and the obligatory car commercial. Notwithstanding, a Google search of the words “Modest Mouse + Emo” yields less perspicuous answers. Passionate Redditors chastise the unenlightened for misusing the term “emo,” while some publications tout the band’s influence on future emo bands.
In 1997, the line between indie and emo was a nebulous one. Before Modest Mouse shared the charts with Britney Spears and rubbed elbows with Orange County’s fictional tween elites, 1997’s Lonesome Crowded West became an unwitting primer for emo newcomers, and one that strayed from the quickly forming tropes of heartbreak.
Modest Mouse formed in 1992 in the Seattle suburb of Issaquah, Washington. They drew from an well of influential bands like Unwound, Lync, and Calvin Johnson’s various projects as a result of their alignment with the burgeoning punk and house show scene of nearby Olympia. Their first EP, 1994’s Blue Cadet-3, Do You Connect (recorded at Johnson’s Dub Narcotic Studios and released on K Records) brimmed with twinkly emo guitars, while some of their trademark rhythms and vocals also began to take form.
The band continued to develop a signature sound throughout their releases, with 1996’s This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About, magnifying frontman Isaac Brock’s peculiar use of harmonics and whammy-bar bends. Bassist Eric Judy and drummer Jeremiah Green crafted danceable, in-pocket grooves akin to a disco-friendly Built To Spill.
The buzz for Modest Mouse grew as they released Lonesome Crowded West, which pushed them to the front of the independent spotlight. Their crowds increased, as did the the variety of bands they played with. Modest Mouse cross-pollinated with varying scenes and audiences, as they shared the stage with bands like Built To Spill, 764 Hero, and Murder City Devils (with whom they often shared guitarist Dan Gallucci). This made them a band that everyone could identify with, not just adherents of a particular scene.
Modest Mouse’s brand of trailer park emo paved new thematic lanes in a genre that, until that point, was mostly suburban and privileged. Within the range of white privilege, the members of Modest Mouse fell at the bare bottom. Perhaps it was the dire reality of their situation that made them less concerned with heartbreak as with the prospect of having their homes replaced by cut-and-paste shopping centers. Their tales of decaying buildings and urban sprawl bore a heavy emotional weight that cut through Brock’s leery delivery.
On “Trailer Trash,” Brock reshaped the common emo trope of looking back on one’s childhood with a soft lens. In lieu of a nostalgia-ridden filter and syrupy lyrics, Brock lamented his upbringing with a more barren tone, with lines like, “Eating snowflakes with plastic forks / And a paper plate, of course.” Though Brock later told Pitchfork that the austere depiction of his childhood he painted was exaggerated. “It wasn’t as bad as I made it sound. I mean, I was a kid. What do you do, ride your bike around the trailer park? It’s a neighborhood to you,” he said.
Lonesome Crowded West oozed with emo and post-hardcore fits as it ingeniously maneuvered through an amalgamation of genres and references. Fans of Cap’n Jazz, jam bands, and indie bands like Pavement all reveled in this album’s relative accessibility. Brock and company occupied a space in which they were free to probe at their interests, and in the process, influenced future generations of bands.
Brock’s thematic guidance on Lonesome Crowded West, navigating issues of class and religion, also cast a wide net in the pool of potential fans. “Doin’ the Cockroach” found Brock grappling with the demons of his home-schooled religious upbringing. “I was in heaven / I was in hell / Believe in neither but fear them as well,” Brock sang, knowing full-well how silly the idea of God sounded. But like many conflicted emo and indie lyricists, Brock’s early Christian indoctrination made it difficult to fully shake the looming risk of eternal damnation.
“Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine” opened the album at full-driving, post-punk force, gradually leading to sweeping octave-chord emo build-up. Lyrically, the themes of sprawl and strip malls plague the album from its powerful blastoff. “Let’s all have another Orange Julius,” a conquered Brock shrugged as he succumbed to the impending doom of his suburban nightmare.
More than being a fan and critical favorite, Lonesome Crowded West readied the band for the “indie” domination that their major-label follow-ups, The Moon and Antarctica in 2000 and 2004’s Good News For People Who Love Bad News, brought. Modest Mouse’s humble beginnings established their authenticity, even as the indie boom spiraled to sometimes less than great heights around them. And unlike many of the slapped-together indie-fad bands, Modest Mouse’s years of experience prior to gaining mainstream recognition anchored them while others easily washed away with the turning tides.
But before the band shook off any remaining specter of emo and defined modern indie rock, Lonesome Crowded West served as a landmark album for a defining time in American independent music. Like Weezer did on Pinkerton, Modest Mouse made an album that overstepped the bounds of classification and inadvertently encapsulated a movement it wasn’t necessarily a part of.
Eddie Cepeda is the founder of Mother of Pearl Vinyl and a writer in New York City. Follow him on Twitter.