Song 151: Modest Mouse, “Paper Thin Walls” (2000)

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I came to Modest Mouse pretty late. I’d heard a few songs here and there (and “Never Ending Math Equation” was a regular song on my college radio show), but for some reason I never investigated further until Good News for People Who Love Bad News came out in 2004. I’m sure diehard Modest Mouse fans think Good News was the time when everybody jumped on the bandwagon, and I suppose they’re right, but it’s a great album.

The Moon and Antarctica is the record that came before Good News, and it’s generally thought of as the best Modest Mouse album, a sentiment that I can’t disagree with. It’s got a handful of great songs, but “Paper Thin Walls” is my favorite. Among other things, the song shows what a talented singer, songwriter and arranged Isaac Brock is. He uses his staccato delivery to great effect on lines like “These walls are paper thin and everyone hears every little sound/Everyone’s a voyeurist, they’re watching me watch them watch me right now.” As in other Modest Mouse songs, his spitfire singing is a perfect match for the choppy guitars and bombastic drums.

I can’t pinpoint exactly what this song is about. I get the paranoia and turn-of-the-century navelgazing of the “voyeurist” verse, but what to make of the “laugh hard, it’s a long ways to the bank” section? Is it a kiss-off? A false sense of security? Is this whole song just an overconfident delusion?

Whatever it is, it’s Modest Mouse’s finest hour. This and “Wild Pack of Family Dogs” were my gateway drug to “Out of Gas,” “Missed the Boat,” and, yes, the glorious and deathless “Float On.” I hope they come out with something else soon.

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