Saturday, March 26, 2016

Modest Mouse - Strangers to Ourselves

"I'm listening to a new Modest Mouse album."

For a very long time, that seemed like a sentence no one would ever be able to utter honestly. As the years wound past following 2007's We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank—a record that dropped when I was 16 years old—the same pattern repeated over and over again. First, the band would make some comment about writing songs or heading into the studio; then, fans would throw Modest Mouse on their most anticipated lists, saying things like "IT'S GOING TO BE THIS YEAR!!!" And then, inevitably, December would come to a close without any word about a new record. Soon enough, we'd all start the vicious cycle all over again.

For that reason, a new Modest Mouse album became something of a boy who cried wolf scenario among fans of the band: everyone was waiting for it, but most weren't willing to get their hopes up for it. So when I started my first listen to Strangers to Ourselves, the band's sixth official full-length album and their first in eight years, I had to reassure myself that I was, indeed, listening to a new Modest Mouse album. Suffice to say that, after so many years, that first listen was an almost surreal experience.

It was also a very positive one, which speaks volumes about the consistency and quality of Strangers to Ourselves. Dealing with eight years of lofty expectations is no easy task, especially when your last record is generally regarded as your worst. (Disclaimer: I don't agree with this assessment of We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank.) Strangers to Ourselves, though, manages to meet expectations—or perhaps even exceed them—and it does so primarily by blending everything that has made Modest Mouse special over the years into a single cohesive album. From the dark, atmospheric, and meandering song structures that made up the band's earlier albums, to the poppier elements of their post-"Float On" phase, this album feels like a love letter to the fans who have stuck by the band's side for years.

That's not to say that Strangers to Ourselves is a stagnation of Modest Mouse's talents, or even that it could be called a rehash of past material. Sure, there are only really a few songs that completely break the Modest Mouse mold: one is the polarizing "Pistol," which sounds like a Beck song, circa Odelay. Another is the synth-led closing track "Of Course We Know," which takes its cue from M83's Hurry Up, We're Dreaming. The former is borderline disastrous, though it's held together somewhat by exemplary percussion (a blend of organic drums and digital effects) and a low-strung buzz-saw guitar solo. The latter, on the other hand, is arguably the album's best song, a luminescent slow-burn hymn that finds frontman Isaac Brock begging the question, "What in hell are we here for?" "Of course we know," he concludes—but in typical Brock fashion, he doesn't let his listeners in on the answer.

Beyond those two songs, Strangers to Ourselves sticks around in the same world that Modest Mouse have already constructed over the course of their 20-plus year career—with an emphasis placed on the more conventional musical styles of their post-millennial work. Lead single "Lampshades on Fire" plays the "Float On" or "Dashboard" role, with a hook catchy enough to land it on the radio—though Mouse will probably have a harder time scoring a hit now than they did 10 years ago. "Wicked Campaign," meanwhile, brings back James Mercer of The Shins, who did a significant amount of of backup vocal work on We Were Dead. His reprise performance is welcome, giving the song a breezy indie-pop feel that should make it a readymade single choice.

Occasionally, though, there are shades of the older, weirder Mouse lurking around in these songs. The masterful "The Ground Walks, With Time in a Box" recalls "A Different City" from The Moon and Antarctica, both in terms of post-punk guitar sound and vocal melody. There's even an atmospheric instrumental break at the song's conclusion—something that used to be common in Modest Mouse songs, but which more or less disappeared with 2004's Good News for People Who Love Bad News. "God Is an Indian and You're an Asshole" is a brief late-album interlude that feels reminiscent of "Bankrupt on Selling," the ramshackle acoustic gem that served as the penultimate track to 1997's The Lonesome Crowded West. And "The Tortoise and the Tourist" is a bizarre and disjointed storytelling piece that also recalls the idiosyncratic West.

Through it all, Modest Mouse retain the elements that have always made them most special. The first of those elements is Isaac Brock's lyrical style, which remains as strong here as it's ever been. As usual, a bit of his brilliance can be captured by just quoting a few lines (like "Spend some time to float in outer space/Find another planet, make the same mistakes," the snarling tag to "Lampshades on Fire"; or "The family living upstairs must have a fleet of ride along mowers," a hilarious one-liner from the frequently funny "The Best Room). Other times, it's tough to parse just what the hell he's talking about—partially because he wants his fans to draw their own meanings and conclusions about his songs. When he does write in a literal, self-explanatory manner, though—like on "Ansel," which is about the death of his brother—it's as striking as it was when he wrote "Ocean Breathes Salty" about the same tragedy.

The other element that takes Strangers to Ourselves from "good" to "great" is the seamless synergy that exists between the various members of the band. It's easy to view Brock's unhinged vocal growl as the definitive component of the Modest Mouse sound, but the fact is that all of the group's records have been thoroughly full-band affairs. From Brock's wiry, detuned lead guitar sound to Eric Judy's slinky basslines, all the way to Jeremiah Green's dynamic drum and percussion work, Modest Mouse's legacy is what it has always been because of teamwork. Meanwhile, other elements—from banjo to violin, pump organ to trumpet—have allowed the band to build an upside-down, carnivalesque atmosphere with their music that isn't quite like anything else out there. The full-band aesthetic is so important to Modest Mouse's DNA that most attempts to cover their songs fall hopelessly flat.

With Strangers to Ourselves, Brock and Green are the only members remaining of the original Modest Mouse lineup—following Judy's exit in 2012. We're also missing Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, who hopped aboard for We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank and left before the band could get around to recording the follow-up. But even with those two departures, Strangers to Ourselves is as musically tight as any album the band has ever recorded. From the quietest moments (the trancelike title track, which opens the record in contemplative fashion; the serene and wintry "Shit in Your Cut") to the loudest ones (the surging "Be Brave"; the bombastic, circus-like "Sugar Boats"), this version of Modest Mouse sounds every bit as good as any past incarnation has.

Eight years is a long time to wait for a band to make a new album, and for some fans, Strangers to Ourselves won't quite justify the lengthy hiatus. It's too long and bloated, for one thing—though that, by now, is part of the Modest Mouse charm. It also probably won't fully appease the longtime supporters of the band, who think that Good News or We Were Dead are lower-tier records compared to the band's earlier and more innovative work. Freed from impossible expectations, though, this is a great record. It's the sound of a veteran band coming back to the game without missing a beat, and churning out some of their best, liveliest, and catchiest material in the process. And since the band supposedly has a boatload of songs that they are ready to rework and release, the hope is that Strangers to Ourselves won't suffer the same fate as We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank: of becoming criminally underrated, simply because it had to shoulder years of inactivity.

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