Frankly, I laughed out loud when it was announced Modest Mouse canceled their full 2013 European tour to work on a new album. After all, the band already was on hiatus for several years back then, so why plan a tour just to cancel it? Also the promise of a 2014 release date was broken due to the departure of founding bassist Eric Judy. Forgivable or not, there is no reason to be mad because much of what Modest Mouse touched in the past turned into pure gold. Now let’s only hope all this delay did not put a spanner in the works.
Although planning does not seem to be their biggest strength, Strangers to Ourselves is probably one of the most anticipated albums of the past years. Eight years without new work of a band that belongs to the the top segment of the indie rock scene is just a long wait for many. Modest Mouse’s origins can be traced back to mid-90s when singer/guitarist Isaac Brock, drummer Jeremiah Green and the aforementioned Judy founded the band in Washington State. The band’s sophomore release in 1997, The Lonesome Crowded West, preluded their rise towards the top. The Moon & Antarctica which came out at the turn of the millenium was critically very well-received. With the knowledge of today I would say this album still is monumental because of it’s keen but quasi-philosophical lyrics and edgy uncompromising rock sound. Up to that point there was no stopping Brock, Green and Judy, however a short yet fierce nervous breakdown of Green caused the lineup to shift on a regular basis. As new band members joined and left Good News For People Who Love Bad News (2004) and We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank (2007) were dropped to widen the target audience. The 2004 dive into mainstream wasn’t very well appreciated by fans who discovered them in the 90s, however Brock et al knowingly took the risk. For me Good News still is a very satisfactory album whilst some slight signs of weariness are beginning to show on the We Were Dead album. The latter also was the last new material we heard for a while.
First things first, as the lead single ‘Lampshades on Fire’ already gave away, Strangers to Ourselves is not expected to be a return to the early years of Modest Mouse. Only by judging by the first notes I would say their sixth full studio release could be their most catchy yet. If you’re a fan of old and deeply hate the ‘Float On’ track from Good News you’d probably better off not read on. You just have to accept the band’s metamorphosis is here to stay. Obviously this change is also reflected in the line-up. In a decade the band grew from three to six members and never was really constant during that process. One of the most notably departures is that of founder Eric Judy (bass) in 2012. For reasons still unclear he left Brock and Green behind as sole culture bearers. Judy’s departure probably opened the path to a new album, a tour cancelled and a delayed release. The gap Judy left for replacement Russell Higbee to fill obviously was a big one. Just to complicate things even more, frontman Isaac Brock stated he also went in with the idea of making two records instead on one and announced a ‘partner album’ to Strangers to Ourselves. Oh well, if you missed Modest Mouse in the past eight years, 2015 is the year for you.
Now let’s talk about Strangers to Ourselves, which I would call a further deepening of Modest Mouse’s comfort zone. Let me begin by saying that I’ve always been a sucker for Modest Mouse’s wondrous or sometimes provocative track titles. This time a handful of titles of the fifteen songs grab my attention: ‘Sugar Boats’, ‘The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box’, ‘Shit in Your Cut’ or what to say of ‘God is an Indian, and You’re an Asshole’. Indeed, the titles don’t matter if the music is a let down. After a few spins in it becomes clear the band mixes up the darker side of The Moon & Antarctica and the lighter side of We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank. The track build-up of Strangers to Ourselves however is very bipolar, the first and eponymous track is an introvert opener in which an depressed sounding Brock accompanied by a melodramatic violin sings about being stuck in traffic and forgetting about your own achievements in life. Catchiness kicks in on the second track ‘Lampshades on Fire’ which is a firm embrace with the upbeat sections of the band’s most recent record from 2007. The ‘pa-pa-pa’s’, ‘duh, duh, duh-dah’s’ and the ‘we’re all going’ choiring soon becomes too abundant. Luckily, with ‘Shit in Your Cut’ the happiness is turned down a notch. To my taste this song is the albums first highlight because it’s evolves from lingering edginess to melodious rock track within five minutes. Now the mood is finally set the album continues with more… catchiness. Alright, the beats and Brock’s distorted voice on ‘Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996)’ will get one of your feet tapping the floor, yet it’s also, and again, a distracting track when it comes to the playing order. After four tracks in, the many style changes make it difficult really get a feel for this new album. Indeed, most Modest Mouse albums are usually wayward of set up but for a mid-term conclusion I think it’s already fair to say that the style breaks between tracks on the whole album are more conspicuous than before.
For the rest of this review I’ll continue to discuss the songs in terms of the ‘darker’ and ‘lighter’ divide I mentioned before. ‘The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box’ is an example of a bright sounding track, here the lead guitar plays some familiar light tabs from which we Modest Mouse so well, and again a choir supports the chorus making this song ideal to stir up those boring working days. If that is happy enough for you the carnival really hits in on ‘Sugar Boats’ which is a free interpretation of Hokum meets the Wild West. With a stomping tuba, frivolous piano play, a filthy electric guitar dictating Brock’s vocals become true addition to the track’s dense atmosphere. Another lighter sounding song is ‘The Best Room’ which somehow reminds me of ‘Steam Engenius’ also from the We Were Dead album. ‘The Best Room’ inspiration comes from 1997 famous Phoenix Lights UFO sighting. Brock was Phoenix at the time, missed the incident but always likes to connect his lyrics to the cosmos. So he decided to write a song about it that actually doesn’t involve the UFO sighting itself but elaborates on side issues concerning that particular day. Right… on another level more serious tracks are present as well. ‘Coyotes’ is a small gesture when the album is halfway through. More dark is the vivacious ‘The Tortoise And The Tourist’. After an ominous guitar intro Brock takes over and sings a strange song about a tortoise who gets robbed of this shell. The ominous guitars here and there make their spooky appearance again, almost literally grabbing listeners by the throat. ‘Of Course We Know’ slow-building setting is also worth a few words. It’s the kind of song you would hear when credits roll but never really takes off. Instead it drags the album to a somewhat disappointing end.
Killing your heroes is never an easy job. Yet and unfortunately enough Modest Mouse deliver a very eclectic album without stepping out of their comfort zone. A lot of songs, maybe leaving out one or two, sound very familiar. Thus, Brock and Green a far from strangers to themselves. In fact they know themselves so well that they seem to be afraid to step over their own musical borders. Also is virtually it’s impossible to listen to the album from front to back, especially if you’re new to Modest Mouse. Stylistically it jumps into many directions and therfore is too much to comprehend. Here I have to note that independently of each other the songs are of good quality. There something in it for everyone. But was it worth the wait? Well, I wasn’t expecting a classic because the cracks in Modest Mouse’s concept were already showing eight years ago. However I also wasn’t hoping it would end like this. Therefore I tend to answer the question with a no, yet, Strangers to Ourselves still offer a few strong songs that most likely will be appreciated with time. So yes, it will get me through 2015. Also this ‘linguistic remix generator’ will help with that.
Label: Epic Records, 2015
- Strangers to Ourselves (3:24)
- Lampshades on Fire (3:08)
- Shit in Your Cut (4:44)
- Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996) (3:42)
- Ansel (2:56)
- The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box (6:10)
- Coyotes (3:31)
- Pups to Dust (3:31)
- Sugar Boats (4:03)
- Wicked Campaign (3:34)
- Be Brave (3:31)
- God Is an Indian and You’re an Asshole (1:17)
- The Tortoise and the Tourist (3:41)
- The Best Room (4:25)
- Of Course We Know (5:23)
Review by Wander Meulemans // 190315