Review Summary: Why would we ever want to wake up?
Modest Mouse just may be the quirkiest band of our time. Issac Brock’s ability to transition seamlessly between pirate-like squawks and genuinely heartfelt insight is not a line easily toed, yet he’s done it for almost two decades now. They’ve also jumped all over the map stylistically, from the rambunctious and free-spirited flow of The Lonesome Crowded West
to the more reserved psychedelic ponderings of The Moon & Antarctica
. From one release to the next, one could never be certain of what to expect from a Modest Mouse album – and that was the best part. They weren’t always the easiest experiences to sit through, especially during the band’s more abrasive phases, but the journey always ended up being worth the ride. So after eight years out of the studio, what does that make Strangers to Ourselves
? Well for one, it’s ironic. Modest Mouse, now more than ever, know exactly who they are and this album proves it. The heavy backbeats, harmonic ba ba ba
’s, and eerie guitar work – it’s all been heard before. That isn’t to say that they don’t add tweaks and subtle little curves, but the truth is their core sound hasn’t changed since 2004, as Good News for People Who Love Bad News
, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank
, and Strangers to Ourselves
all follow the same general set of rules. Modest Mouse’s sixth studio album is like drifting off into a daydream during a road trip – reminiscing about all the things you’ve seen and places you’ve been – only to realize you fell asleep and you’ve been parked at your destination the whole time. In essence, this is Modest Mouse’s greatest hits.
Understandably, a lot of people will read that and exclaim to themselves, “Modest Mouse’s greatest hits, what’s so awful about that?” The quick answer is nothing. This is a perfectly respectable outing by a band that has carved out a permanent niche as prominent indie-rock statesmen. In fact, I highly recommend it to anyone just getting into Modest Mouse. However, for those who have followed the band since their humble beginnings and have witnessed their growth over the course of decades, there’s very little to be gained from a cumulative resumé of ideas. Take lead single ‘Lampshades on Fire’ for instance. The song is basically a more well-rounded sibling of ‘The World At Large’, featuring the same ba ba ba
’s as its cornerstone chorus, just with a livelier tempo and choir backing vocals (which is easily the most entertaining part). But they’re both plants growing from the same exact root, and that should bother anyone who expected novelty after hearing that the band was recording with Krist Novoselic and Big Boi. Or alternatively, maybe the fact that Strangers to Ourselves
isn’t a hip-hop infused mess is relief enough in itself to overlook the album’s glaring lack of vision. For better or worse, it’s the same old Modest Mouse that we were all listening to when ‘Float On’ hit the airwaves.
Within that static realm of existence, we find that Strangers to Ourselves
– like so many Modest Mouse albums before it – is a mixed bag of glowing gems and bafflingly pointless duds. The title track, in all of its plodding and redundant pace, actually qualifies as the former with a mesmerizing atmosphere and Brock’s Roger Waters reminiscent pipes. As a lead track it might not be the most convincing, but that takes nothing away from it as a stand-alone highlight. ‘Pups to Dust’ is an incredibly underrated piece, with dynamically layered vocals that begin as jarring background crescendos and culminate in angelically lush, female-fronted humming. Somewhere in the middle of all this, they tear off an absolutely massive sounding electric guitar riff. The more I discuss that song, the more I’m convinced it’s actually the best one on here. ‘Sugar Boats’ is another clear standout, with a crystalline piano introduction that works its way through a sinister progression to a metallic climax complete with a breakdown. The closing trifecta is almost perfect, with ‘The Tortoise and the Tourist’ serving as the closest Modest Mouse has ever come to recapturing the magic from The Moon & Antarctica
, ‘The Best Room’ showing off the best of their eccentric side (it’s about a UFO sighting), and ‘Of Course We Know’ tying it all together with one enormous sounding, epic ribbon. Writing all of this is almost enough to convince me that it doesn’t matter whether or not Modest Mouse ever
does anything new, because they’re so damn qualified for the current role in which they reside.
However, for as easy as it is to get swept up in Strangers to Ourselves
’ highlight reel, it’s just as easy to step into the manhole comprised of time-wasters such as ‘Pistol’ and ‘*** in Your Cut.’ ‘Pistol’ is one of those tracks that is so goddamn terrible that you almost feel embarrassed for having listened to it…it’s almost one of those so bad it’s good
situations, but the line “why don’t you come into my room and clean my pistol” is too cringe-worthy to even offer the track any type of honorary respect. At least ‘God is an Indian and You’re an Asshole’ gets redemption points for having an awesome name. ‘Be Brave’ and ‘Ansel’ are two very frustrating songs because they sound like they’ll be vast and overpowering, but they just end up being boring. Both tracks make the same mistake of peaking immediately, and then wandering confusedly for the rest of the runtime without really progressing or changing at all. There’s a small handful of other mid-level quality tunes that pack enough of a punch to intrigue, namely ‘Wicked Campaign’ – but such tracks don’t really do enough to sway the listener either way. At the end of the day, Strangers to Ourselves
has a very similar makeup to both of its predecessors though – there’s the good, the bad, and the ugly…how those fractions shake out in terms of the record’s make-up boil down to personal preference.
With Strangers to Ourselves
, Modest Mouse have at least proven that they haven’t lost a step after a lengthy studio hiatus. Many fans will find themselves disappointed that this didn’t amount to some kind of Earth-shattering “statement album”, but that’s a common reaction to have when a band takes a long time off from recording and everyone falsely assumes that they have eight years’ worth of calculated improvements just ready to fly. However, those same fans can take solace in the fact that Brock and company are ready to follow this album up with a near-finished product “as soon as legally possible.” They’ve already hinted that it will be “weird”, which by Modest Mouse’s already bizarre standards may actually be cause for concern. Perhaps that album is where they hid all their new ideas. For now though, Strangers to Ourselves
serves us a steady diet of more post-2000 Modest Mouse. It’s not all bad, but one can’t help but think that this fifteen-track recording is a long album for someone with nothing to say.