It Holds Up: Modest Mouse – ‘Good News For People Who Love Bad News’

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Modest Mouse released Good News For People Who Love Bad News 20 years ago on April 6th. The band dropped a 20th anniversary expanded edition with remixes from Poolside, MGMT’s Andrew VanWyngarden, and more, in addition to soft-announcing a reunion tour and new music.

After a night of befriending a poet and drinking too much at a crowded club, I told my new friend that my favorite band was Modest Mouse. She laughed and playfully said, “What are you, a 40-year-old man?” which was a completely fair response. I’m 28, and Modest Mouse has been my favorite band since 10-year-old me discovered “Float On” on a mix CD that my parents got from a funeral. A family friend’s kid died—he wasn’t really a kid, but a college student. His parents made CDs with his favorite music on them, which I’ve always thought was a devastating and beautiful way to honor someone—the mix had songs from Dave Matthew’s Band, Nirvana, and Modest Mouse. When I was 16, I snuck out from my Detroit-adjacent home to drive the 3+ hours to Columbus with my best friend and her boyfriend to see them play. Since then, I’ve seen them at least 10 times. While Good News For People Who Love Bad News is not my favorite album, it’s one of the earlier albums that made me excited about writing. With their 20th album anniversary, I thought I’d reflect on what it was like listening to it when I was younger versus now. 

Modest Mouse officially became my favorite band in high school. I was downloading their old discography, reblogging lyrics on tumblr, and smoking pot on my drive to school, listening to “Dramamine.” I was dating a mean boy who lived in a trailer park, surrounded by rural farmland. A girl he was friends with was burning CDs with Ugly Casanova songs on them, saying “Listen, it’s like new Modest Mouse.” I was sharing her toothbrush when I would sleep over and spend every day with her in the summer. I was in over my head, I was on anti-depressants. When you’re 17, you are so much bigger than everything around you, and that tension fuels everything—every decision, every emotion. At 17, I didn’t care about anything. That time in my life is like a glare—it’s hard to look at, so I try to avoid it. I fluctuated between feeling nothing at all, angry for not being able to compartmentalize my emotions, and a fleeting sense of thrill. When I was desperate for the sadness to vanish, I would do something I was uncomfortable with. Sure, I can’t swim, but I’ll jump into the quarry. Sure, I’ll try anything once. Sure, I can drive, toss me the keys. I was eager for distractions, and more than willing to do anything that meant not being alone.

Good News, on my worst days, kept me angry. On my best days, it kept me hopeful. “Bury Me With It” means something different to me now than it did back then. Now, I deeply cherish life, almost to the point of being a bit on edge in any situation. I can’t travel without worrying the car or plane is going to explode. My head is always on a swivel when I go to new places. I’m not sure if this is due to doom scrolling or a sense of dread that just happens as you get older, but it’s like a switch flipped. I don’t know how to make this feeling go away, and no one warned me about this. I don’t recognize the young girl I once was, who used to swerve a car to pass a joint to a friend in the car next to her. That carelessness feels so foreign to me now, but it’s probably how a lot of teenagers feel. Young, aimless, and misunderstood.

Horns as an intro set expectations for Good News—a little playful, a little rowdy, and a little absurd. This album was immensely popular, with “Float On” to thank for that—you know the one. Partially produced by The Flaming Lips, grammy-nominated Good News was Modest Mouse’s second album under a major studio label. It sold over 1.5 million copies, certified platinum, and doesn’t include founding member, the late Jeremiah Green on drums. Their following album would go on to feature Johnny Marr, because Isaac Brock cold-called him. Good News, like Modest Mouse’s previous work, maintains a melancholic tone and evocative storytelling, but is much cleaner from being professionally produced. Good News has horns and strings throughout and a balance of heavier to softer songs, with small interludes breaking them up. With influences from Tom Waits, The Pixies, and Yo La Tengo, listening to Good News now is a dose of ramped-up nostalgia—it was my gateway drug to a lot of those bands.

“Ice age heat wave can’t complain, if the world’s at large why should I remain?” are the first lyrics of Good News. A wanderlust story about starting over (and still one of my overall favorites) made me eager for what was to come. A few single notes for the first verse, the stillness of this song feels like you’re underwater watching the light shimmer around you, but you don’t know which way is up or down. The chorus swells and the instruments slowly build up, making their presence known. “World at Large” was an anthem for anyone sad and sick of their hometown—a song about feeling stuck somewhere, daydreaming of drifters, ready to see the bigger picture. Every time I see them play this live (and most times, they do) it’s met the same sense of wonder as the first time I heard it.

The final notes of “World at Large” pick up pace into “Float On,” a song about being all right despite the bullshit; of course people loved this song. Anytime I hear it now, it’s met with mild annoyance, the way you get a little irked when an old friend tells the same story you’ve heard a million times. However, Brock’s lyrics, lisp (non-derogatory) and killer storytelling are what make this album iconic. The transition between “World at Large” and “Float On” is an example of what makes this album so polished in comparison to their older records.

The track where Good News gets its name, “Bury Me With It” has a bassline like a heartbeat that has something to say. I have vivid scenes of my friends and I basically spitting on each other, yelling “DON’T NEED NONE OF THAT MAD MAX BULLSHIT!” Now I’m like, what does that mean? I’ve never seen this movie? But in high school, I thought this song, followed by “Dig Your Grave,” was enough to support reckless choices. The momentum of this album feels so expansive, which is why it remains one of my favorites. People love to drag Good News, and to them I say: stop being trendy. It’s okay to enjoy things that are popular. In the spirit of being honest, I will admit that I started reading Bukowski in high school because of this record, and yes, this is where my love of banjos, the sexiest instrument alive, began. “Bukowski” was on repeat for nights me and my friends would scream the lyrics on the hitch of a truck, drinking in a parking lot. All the stress of things I’m not talking about are leaving my body. “Who would want to be such a control freak? Who would want to be such an asshole?” This was such a caricature at the time. Of course Bukowski is an asshole—there are so many better poets out there! Why had I been wasting my time? It’s a right of passage to read shitty poetry before you start writing good poetry, I suppose. That said, this song does the same thing to me now as it did the first time I heard it. I let my voice get a little bendy and growly, and wait for the next swig of horns to hit.

The last few songs of Good News For People Who Love Bad News is a pleasant reminder of why I love this band so deeply. I’m usually listening to the older, syrupy songs, like “Talking Shit About a Pretty Sunset,” “Custom Concern,” or “Bankrupt on Selling.” I forgot how beautiful “Blame it on the Tetons” is, with Brock’s voice softened and vulnerable. “The View” hits home with “As life gets longer, awful feels softer,” which feels like the thesis of this album. A lyric drenched in the truth, I’m glad to be alive to reflect on this record. It’s hard for me now, ten-plus years after a time in my life when I was writing goodbye notes to my parents, to remember anything clearly. I can vaguely recall which memories had a warm filter over them and which didn’t, and it’s difficult to trust my ability to parse out events from then. Things still feel truly awful at times, but it doesn’t feel awful enough to want to bail—more like something I’ve come to understand and coexist with. I hear that sentiment more in Good News For People Who Love Bad News with every re-listen.

Ryleigh Wann | @wannderfullll

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