In Hear This, The A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, in honor of Labor Day, we’re picking songs about work.
Modest Mouse, “Custom Concern” (1996)
“Gotta go to work / gotta go to work / gotta have a job.”
No lyricist quite encapsulates the sweeping inevitably of becoming a cog in the system as succinctly as Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock does in “Custom Concern.” The way this song shambles along, echoing the beaten and broken masses shuffling into and out of work in a never-ending parade of sadness (not too dissimilar to the indelible shift change that occurs in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis), is also a testament to Brock’s often underrated guitar-playing, lazy in all the right ways here.
To say nothing of the rest of the band: Most of Modest Mouse’s debut This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About is built around the occasionally monotonous (but also deeply hypnotic) rhythm section of Eric Judy and Jeremiah Green on bass and drums, respectively. This track is no different, lulling the listener into the very complacency our narrator is experiencing. Work, eat, sleep, repeat: There is no alternative.
There’s also no escaping Brock’s vision of an industrial revolution gone awry, or manifest destiny in reverse, as he sends our slack-jawed automaton stand-in through manmade deserts of concrete, strip malls, and parking lots as far as the eye can see. It’s a depressive look at the modern man that can be seen as an updated take on director Luis Buñuel’s misanthrophic view of the Hurdanos in “Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan (trans: Las Hurdes: Land Without Bread).” Especially when Brock opines, “build up the monuments and steeples to wear out our eyes,” paralleling the impoverished in the surrealist auteur’s travelogue who barely survive in the shadow of a gaudy cathedral at their city’s center.
It’s a bleak point of view, to note that there is no comfort in the routine, that we are painted into narrow corners as we age into “responsibility.” And unfortunately for us all, “this’ll never end / this’ll never end / this’ll never stop.”