Thursday, February 22, 2007

Peter and his monkey laugh, and I laugh with them

#5 Modest Mouse, The Lonesome Crowded West (Up, 1997)

The author Flannery O’Connor famously described the South as a place that is “Christ-haunted." Having lived in the South for coming up on seven years now, I’m here to tell you that Flannery O’Connor is full of shit. Forgive me if I misunderstand the rules of the undead, but for Christ to be able to haunt anything, wouldn’t he have to die first (again, I guess)? Believe me, Christ is far from dead in these parts. Saying that the South is haunted, to my mind, is essentially a way to say, “hey, every other person here is a Baptist, but we’re still cool and mysterious and gothic.”

Now, the South certainly does have more than enough myth and mystery to go around (listen to any album by the excellent Drive-By Truckers, for example). As The Lonesome Crowded West suggests, however, it’s much more accurate to say that the region that Jesus haunts is the wide wide American West. Unlike in the South, from the first years that my people first defiled the Indians’ holy grounds, the West has never taken well to the pieties and religions of its parents. And while j.c. certainly makes his presence known out there, this album envisions a tired-out deity who, in his very otherworldliness and flamboyance, blends in with the rest of the kooks. In Modest Mouse’s vision, God is a slob like one of us, but here the ‘us’ is a motley collection of angry cowboys, pornographers, grinning salesmen, get-rich schemers, and drunkard good-for-nothings.

Much like with The Moon and Antarctica, Modest Mouse creates on this record a coherent musical and thematic world, but what makes this record slightly better, in my opinion, is that this one is more comic. From the first track, “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine,” wherein we all share an Orange Julius in America’s future ghost towns, through the last song, “Styrofoam Boots/It’s All Nice,” where the Big Man saunters through St. Peter’s (and his monkey’s) playground, “lookin’ a bit like everyone I’ve ever seen/ he moves like crisco disco, breath 100% Listerine,” this record puts forth an insightfully silly (but not entirely unserious) view of this great country. And though it sounds like a Very Important and Thought-Provoking Idea to say that a place is “Christ-haunted,” if we have learned anything from Casper and Scooby Doo episodes, it’s that ghosts are funny. The West is ridiculous. Cowboy Dan and “Doin’ the Cockroach” are ridiculous. And in this landscape, our buddy the carpenter’s apprentice (who appears in “Jesus Christ Was an Only Child”) and his apostles (in the heart-rending “Bankrupt on Selling”) are no different.

It’s not all fun times and chuckles, of course. The flip side of the car-salesman deity is the absent deity. In “Styrofoam Boots” we also hear that “well I’ll be damned,/ you were right, no one’s running this whole thing,” and “God takes care of himself, and you of you.” When we have a God reduced to haunting these (literally?) godforsaken places, even drunken Cowboy Dan can take his potshots (“He fired his rifle in the sky/ said, ‘God if I have to die, you will have to die’”). This unlikeable cowboy is a perfect metaphor for the utopian individualism and staggering hubris of the myth of the West, in which each person writes their own history. Even more than Ms. O’Connor, Cowboy Dan and Modest Mouse too are full of shit. Unlike with the countless myths of the South, however, at least this one doesn’t take itself all that seriously.

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