Isaac Brock, the Unreliable Narrator: Holy Fury in Modest Mouse’s “Cowboy Dan”

By Randy Plym

I would be the last to call Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse a Christian, considering the man himself has denounced the religion as “basically a load of bullshit” and is no stranger to excoriating God in his songs (Bentler). That being said, I do think Brock plays the unreliable narrator. While his songs do contain an iron-clad atheism, they’re frequently brewed with apocalyptic visions that, if not invalidate the atheism, at the very least complicate it. How strange, then, that Brock the atheist should reach the same conclusion as Jesus Christ himself on the bands towering album, “The Lonesome Crowded West” – specifically in “Cowboy Dan.” 

Forming the album’s literal and ideological center, “Cowboy Dan” has remained a show staple for the last 25 years. One of the most theological songs on the album, it serves as a Post-Christian/atheist manifesto for the band.

It is, after all, a song about a guy trying to off God himself.

An incorrigible loner, society frustrates Dan and hems him in. Brock sings, “I didn’t move to the city; the city moved to me.” Dan feels alienated among people; he embodies the titular loneliness of the crowd. And while I’m inferring this next point, I think almost certainly this alienation relates to a value differential. Consider the moniker itself. How many people were truly cowboys in suburban Seattle circa 1997? Dan’s a LARPER, cosplaying a genre where the bad guys literally wear black. Beset in a suburban sprawl – the classical purview of shallowness and corporate materialism (and the subject of the album; something Brock called the “mallfucking” of America) (Bentler) – Dan’s fury at mortality itself shoves him to the fringe, a fury typically the natural habitat of teenagers and religious fanatics.     

It sounds cheeky, but I mean it.

Teenagers waken to their mortality and see the “phonies” awash in tide-pools of sameness. Zombie literature abounds. After all, the moment of glimpsing death for young adults often coincides with endless visions of mundane tasks with mediocre results, adults who’ve pragmatically shoved aside existential questions for the sake of carrying on.

Fanatics see the godhead and the white-hot-urgency of existence and, perhaps in a similar way, struggle to situate themselves within the tepidness around them.

But while most people find the current and make peace with their discomfort (or relegate major existential questions to cold storage) in order to live their lives, some people cannot shake these questions. Cowboy Dan reminds me of a modern Flannery O’Connor character: someone with an off-kilter but solid morality whose sense of justice propels them outside the wagon-ring of normal society.

Cowboy Dan escalates this rage to its natural terminus: attempting to kill God as revenge for mortality. Brocks writes, “He goes to the desert, fires his rifle in the sky, says God if I have to die, you will have to die.”

The same conclusion as the Christian God.

How strange.

While the death and resurrection of the gods occurs in many mythologies (e.g. the murder of Osiris by Set and the agricultural abundance that comes from the cutting up of his body), the gospel variant is unique precisely because the God (not a senator-deity in a pantheon) isn’t murdered or betrayed; God observes the suffering rife in his creation and allows people, not other gods, to kill him.

The other day, a wasp flew through my window, generally annoying me with its existence. But the wasp posed barely any threat to me, which is still more than Cowboy Dan poses to God, considering that the wasp’s entire life is a week or two of mine. To paraphrase Jay-Z, “what’s a week to a human like me, can you please remind me” (N***** in Paris)?

Cowboy Dan’s rebellion attempt is heroic in a way – but also a pathetic farce, which Brock has to realize. Although he’s commented that he wouldn’t write the song if he still believed in God (Bentler), writing the song has as little effect on God as firing a bullet into the atmosphere. But the gospel story – the equivalent of it, rather – is like if I became a caterpillar, the natural prey of wasps, and allowed it to brutally kill me (Osterloff).

This would be alarming behavior from the pantheon but utterly astounding with an airier, Platonic deity like the Logos described by John.

And so – to return to the opening – I wouldn’t call Isaac Brock a Christian, but I would posit that anger over mortality is a hopelessly religious phenomenon, an emotion that becomes absurd in a godless universe. Evolution in theory poses many different ways of being, but at the same time: what you see is what we get, because you see what’s fit enough to work, and what doesn’t work, well, doesn’t exist – or is in the process of defuncting itself. You might not like this. You might strive like Google to make us immortal (Time). But getting angry with it is pretty much a dead end.

In contrast, Christianity – and most of the world’s religions – posits that something IS wrong, that there may be many different ways of being, but the one we currently know is tainted despite its wonder. Something’s rotten. Anger relates to certainty. If it’s 100% clear that I shoved you, anger is a natural result. But if it’s even 50% possible that I just bumped into you accidentally, anger might be present but muted by other emotions. If nothing else, the Christian story provides a certainty that something’s wrong, and paradoxically enough, that God is on the same page.

This religious emotion, despite Modest Mouse’s atheistic calculations, doesn’t form an exhaustive theology but contributes to the magic of “A Lonesome Crowded West.” The critic has always been the strange friend of what he criticizes, and Christians can find – if they’re open to it – an odd friend in Modest Mouse.

Randy Plym is a poet and author from Virginia. His pieces have appeared in Vita Brevis, Edge of Humanity Magazine, and The Scarlet Leaf Review. He currently lives near Frankfurt, Germany, where he’s finishing a novel.

Works Cited

Bentler, R.J. “Modest Mouse – The Lonesome Crowded West – Pitchfork Classic.” Youtube,        documentary, 5 Mar. 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G33AcZzZ0pM.

Brock, Isaac. “Cowboy Dan.” Lyric Genius. https://genius.com/Modest-mouse-cowboy-dan-       lyrics.

Jay-Z & Kanye West. “N***** in Paris.” Lyric Genius. https://genius.com/Jay-z-and-kanye-      west-niggas-in-paris-lyrics.

Natural History Museum. “What do Wasps Do?” Accessed Aug 1st, 2022.            https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/what-do-wasps-do.html.

Time. “Google Calico and a Brief History of the Immortality Business.” Last Modified Sept 18,   2013, https://business.time.com/2013/09/18/google-calico-and-a-brief-history-of-the-     immortality-business/.


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