A few weeks ago when a friend and me were traveling down a long, desolate stretch of highway in Northeastern Missouri, we started talking about album "rules". One my friend posed that I was blissfully unaware of was the "9th track rule", which argues that the 9th track on an album is frequently the best. On Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited it's the hypnotic folk epic "Desolation Row". Pavement's breakout 1994 effort Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain claims the loping cowpunk "Range Life" as its 9th track. The acoustic sway of "Who'll Stop the Rain" by Creedence Clearwater Revival comes in 9th place on Cosmo's Factory. In the past decade, tracks from "Do You Realize?" to "Swimming Pools (Drank)" have held the high honor of batting 9th.
I'd argue another rule that stands on even ground with the "9th track rule" is the "penultimate track rule". Tracks under this banner include: the Rolling Stones immortal elegy "Shine a Light", doleful Smiths offering "There is a Light That Never Goes Out", Radiohead's "Morning Bell", and most recently Arcade Fire for "Afterlife" (whose career has been defined by the rule). However, for all of the success the penultimate track sees, it's not an enviable position. A penultimate track has the lofty goal of preparing listeners for the end of a musical journey. In life, it's the white light we see before floating into the great beyond.
In the past two decades, few penultimate tracks have had as much weight dropped dead on their shoulders as Modest Mouse's "Bankrupt on Selling" from Lonesome Crowded West. A sprawling mess of a record, it is also a masterpiece documenting the slow incursion of the free-market on the free-range lifestyle of the west. Bright mom and pop store fronts are replaced by anemic Orange Julius' and cement parking lots bleed into asphalt-paved highways. As frontman Isaac Brock summarized the LP in "Cowboy Dan", "I didn't move to the city the city moved to me."
By the time "Bankrupt on Selling" peers out from the endless traffic jams, there's no humanity left, only machine men with machine minds. "Well all the Apostles-they're sitting in swings, saying 'I'd sell off my Savior for a set of new rings,'" Brock sullenly warbles in the opening lines. If the Son of God was sold off for 30 pieces of silver, none of us stand a chance when swimming against the roaring tide of the economy. Left behind at auction with a ragged acoustic figure and chiming electric guitar, Brock sees this cycle of "buying and selling is endless." Unlike the wheel of samsara, it's a cycle we can never escape from. An "unlimited hell."
Brand new wings and collegiate stints can't free us either. We learn "two-dollar words" in halls of higher learning only to scream profanities when we're stuck in a fight. In a world over-reliant on expediency, everything risks being thrown away. We'll forget meaningful friends and relationships if given enough distractions. And on the off-chance we break out of this loop and "come clean with ourselves" as Brock attempts in the conclusion, it's often too late. We're left wanting what we can't have and longing to be what we can never be.
If you have suggestions for songs you want to see featured in future editions of Track Attack, feel free to leave them in the comment section.