Feeling Spaced: 25 Years of Modest Mouse’s “This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About”

A quarter of a decade on, the band’s debut remains a worthy companion for both aimless road trips and personal crossroads.

If you couldn’t tell from its title, there’s a sense of resignation to Modest Mouse’s first studio album. Released in 1996, This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About is, as most of the band’s records continued to be, a reflection of very American landscapes that surround them. But unlike later albums—and  again, as its title suggests—the scenery of these songs is ever-shifting. 

The record, to that extent, is a bit like a car (a perpetual motion machine, you might say) moving through its own songs, colored blurs of time that ebb and flow with the boredom that comes from being on the road for days, flashes of other people’s lives beneath vast skies that stretch out above you like God, the desert spreading forever on either side of you, the journey itself endless, pointless, meaningless, a paradox: there is nowhere to go, and there never was, but at the same time there is everywhere to go, a whole unexplored world out there. The road doesn’t just lead past bridges, telephone poles and pylons, truck stop after truck stop, Denny’s after Wendy’s after McDonald’s, cornfields and farmhouses and faded signs of a ruined, dying America. Way beyond what you can see immediately ahead of you lies something else—unimagined worlds, unexplored galaxies, old and future friends and lovers. The road, you see, is also time, simultaneously here and now, there and then, and even if you see it shimmering, refracted in the heat and nothingness up ahead, it still has to end someday. 

It’s into that world and frame of mind that This Is a Long Drive plunges you. It’s an album of thoughtless depth, of being stuck in a rut everywhere you go, an album that finds beauty in tedium and the banal, but which also refuses to romanticize those things. At the same time, the sheer inventiveness of the music and the unrestrained sense of feeling—of being, of existencethat courses through this record does romanticize them. But then, Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock has always been fascinated with paradoxes and oxymorons: he called 1997’s follow-up The Lonesome Crowded West, 2004’s super-breakthrough is titled Good News for People Who Love Bad News. If contradictions aren’t overt or salient on this album, they’re very much still present. After all, for someone with nothing to think about, there’s an awful lot being thought about, even if that’s just thinking about not thinking. Try as you might, you can never fully escape your own mind.   

It’s probably not too much of a stretch to suggest that this record begins with someone trying to do exactly that. The lilting and hypnotic, beautiful yet ragged “Dramamine” is the start of the journey—both literally and metaphorically. It seeks to move away in time and distance from the past, a motion sickness pill swallowed to help you get through the journey, even if it’s one you’ll never actually finish. Because as much as it’s a song about traveling, it’s also about moving forward, and it’s shrouded in sadness and loneliness, in its own bleak poetry: “Traveling, swallowing Dramamine / Feeling spaced, breathing out Listerine,” sings Brock as numbness washes over the song. “I’d said that I’d said what I’d tell ya / And that’s you’ve killed the better part of me.” Just a bit later it’s clear that the narrator has both everything and nothing on his mind. “I still can’t focus on anything,” he laments before focusing on a bitter (and very pre-pandemic) universal truth: “We kiss on the mouth but still cough down our sleeves.”

It’s an album of thoughtless depth, of being stuck in a rut everywhere you go, an album that finds beauty in tedium and the banal, but which also refuses to romanticize those things.

In a pattern which takes hold throughout the record, the lullabilic sway of that song is immediately broken by the more rambunctious tones of “Breakthrough.” Accompanied by bassist Eric Judy and drummer Jeremiah Green, as well as his own distinctive guitar lines, Brock’s vocals shift between tender pleas and gruff, barking growls of frustration at the pointlessness of existence. In this world, time is an abstract concept, and circadian rhythms are for those living nine to five, not those in these songs who are far removed from that lifestyle: “Open the curtain and let in some sky / It’s almost half past 2 a.m. / You can tell by the light.” 

There’s no need for time, yet still it’s always there, even if you wish it weren’t. There’s a similar sentiment on “Custom Concern,” too: “I get up just about noon,” Brock sings wearily, his vocals, as they so often are, double-tracked high and low. “My head sends a message for me to reach for my shoes / Gotta go to work, gotta go to work, gotta have a job.” It’s the ultimate example of slackerdom, but it’s also more than that—as existential as it is nihilistic, free of worry but also full of it. Interestingly, the lyrics for that song are printed on the record inaccurately as “Gotta get a job.” That may seem insignificant and trivial, but it actually makes all the difference: “get” implies intention, “have” implies none. Just as there’s nothing to think about, so there is nothing to do. Existence is a void.

There’s a misprint—or whatever it might be—on the lyrics to “Dramamine,” too. Whereas they’re written as “I think I know my geometry pretty damn well,” Brock clearly sings “geography.” That, too, makes much more sense, given this record’s title, and the fact that—on the surface, at any rate—it’s very much centered around travel. That’s something easily gleaned from a glance at the song names: “Beach Side Property,” “Head South,” “Tundra/Desert,” and “Ohio” are all destinations/part of the journey, while the frantic melancholy of final track “Space Travel Is Boring” transforms this—for 114 seconds, at any rate—into more of an intergalactic voyage. Really, though, the motion—and motion sickness—is entirely internal and emotional. Is it any wonder that the two bonus tracks included on the vinyl version are called “Edit the Sad Parts” and “A Manic Depressive Named Laughing Boy”? 

Not that this album—which, incidentally, was produced by Steve Wold some eight years before he’d emerge with his hobo persona/gimmick Seasick Steve—needs bonus tracks. The original 16 songs have a running time of 74 minutes, the extra two adding 13 to the equation, and didn’t (and still don’t) fit on the CD version. If that seems overly long, it’s also extremely fitting. Not only does the album’s length mirror the long drive of its title, but it also allows a young and fledgling Modest Mouse (Brock was 20 when he wrote these songs) to freely experiment and find their sound. A far cry from the more polished (yet still unpolished) structure and arrangement of future megahit “Float On,” this is a sonic minefield—guitars crashing into drums and overpowering more tender melodies, songs that occasionally outstay (but then re-find) their welcome. 

Not only does the album’s length mirror the long drive of its title, but it also allows a young and fledgling Modest Mouse to freely experiment and find their sound. A far cry from the more polished structure and arrangement of future megahit “Float On,” this is a sonic minefield. 

Released on influential but now-defunct indie label Up, this was a good four years before Epic would put out the band’s tidied up (but still occasionally irascible and irritable) major label debut, The Moon and Antarctica. The Modest Mouse of this record was wild, raw, and unhinged in the best possible way: the phenomenal “Dog Paddle”—itself a wonderful metaphor for traveling while hardly moving—incorporates a series of coughs and wheezes into the song as instruments, while “Talking Shit About a Pretty Sunset” could, with a less rambunctious, deliberately clumsy delivery and a bit of tightening up, have been an unabashed hit. But then, this wouldn’t be a Modest Mouse record, where perfection always lies in the imperfections, because after all you don’t get to airbrush your life. You just have to live it, and suffer the consequences. 

Sometimes, though, that’ll lead to an epiphany. Brock reaches one—perhaps the overriding revelation of the record—on “Talking Shit”: “I claim I’m not excited with my life anymore / So I blame this town, this job, these friends / The truth is it’s myself.” Even that realization isn’t an answer. Just before the song comes to the extended outro’s unrestrained sonic explosion, Brock offers one final summation of the crux of the situation, of life, of everything: “Changed my mind so much I can’t even trust it / My mind changed me so much I can’t even trust myself.” 

Well, goddamn. That’s an awful lot to think about. FL

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