Strangers To Ourselves Album Review
Released March 17th, 2015
Genre: Alternative Rock, Indie Pop
After 8 years – 8 long years – Reddit’s favourite Indie-Rock band are back. The Issaquah sextet finally let loose their sixth full-length record this week. After the disappointingly polished and unmemorable performance on 2007’s We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank, Modest Mouse fans, myself included, were hoping for something of U-turn back to the golden age of intensity and melody à la Long Drive/Lonesome Crowded West.
But following the announcement of this record I re-assessed. Modest Mouse are a band founded on imbalance. Not in terms of creativity or cohesiveness but rather by the way they compose themselves – the nature of their existence. I’m guilty as anyone for trying to stitch together patterns and identify tenuous links across Modest Mouse’s discography but that comes with the territory of having become a cult band. Strangers to Ourselves, for all it’s obvious shortcomings and familiarity, is a testament to this imbalance. A new chapter for Modest Mouse, for better or worse I suppose.
In keeping with these projected patterns, Modest Mouse openers are forever victim of this. We try and pigeon-hole them into two categories either the low-key, introspective beginnings in the style of “Dramamine”, “World at Large” and “Third Planet” or all-guns blazing hits like “Teeth like God’s Shoeshine” and “Dashboard”. But I don’t think “Strangers To Ourselves”, the opening cut, slots in. It is subdued, granted, but it feels grander and more experienced. The way the strings sweep across the mix and wind-chimes dangle in the distance makes Modest Mouse feel like a totally different band in this instance. And they are, they’ve lost Eric Judy, the original bassist and a quintessential ingredient to the urgency that is cherished on the earlier releases and butchered on the latter. From the off, going into Stranger to Ourselves with the expectation of We Were Dead V2.0 is only going lead you to disappointment.
Having reached something of a commercial breakthrough in 2004 with Good News For People Who Love Bad News, Modest Mouse have been more recently yielding to their pop itch. They’ve always had elements of pop in their music since the beginning; catchy melodies and memorable guitar lines are a fundamental reason why they are so widely beloved. So when “Lampshades on Fire” first dropped there weren’t too many raised eyebrows across the board. The deeply embed funk grooves and sing-along choruses sandwiched between Isaac Brock’s bleak dystopian imagery is a refined cocktail at this point but one that hasn’t sounded as convincing in the last couple of records.
And while “Lampshades” and following single “The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box” were slated for their similarities to tracks like “Paper Thin Walls”, Strangers has so much to offer in terms of diversity. There are some authentically endearing moments like on “Coyotes” which depicts a peaceful national park with paw prints in the snow accompanied by softly plucked guitars. In a similar vein, “Pups to Dust” sees Isaac revert back to a less-knowing persona nesting in this comforting oriental riff and rustic percussion giving a real in-the-shed production feel.
Though I’ve always felt Isaac, as a songwriter, has something of a bipolar M.O. For every sweet and insightful track he musters, he has to match it with something equally fucked up. The deranged circus piano jig of “Sugar Boats” is close enough a tribute to The Killing Joke and the pitched-down vocals, as obnoxious as they are, on “Pistol” act as a narration device. Isaac embodies this hedonistic cretin of a character who indulges in promiscuity, hard drugs and fraud as sharp drums clatter and tense guitars build.
However, maybe it’s because a third of the track-list was released prior to the album drop, lacklustre moments were to be expected. The initial discharge of excitement came alongside the first couple of singles and at this point of listening it sometimes feels like we’re just filling in the gaps. Tracks like “Wicked Campaign” sound like filler in comparison. The effect laden instrumentation is far from grounded and combined with airy backing vocals and synth makes for a wholly ineffective juncture between two of the more lively songs on this record: “Sugar Boats” and “Be Brave”. “Brave” of which is roaring upheaval of candour and moxy – Isaac at his most gutsy. For every trough, there’s a much greater peak – again, my imbalance theory plays out.
Final track, “Of Course We Know” is something I see as a conversion mechanic for this album. If faith has been lost, “Of Course” is there to restore. Possibly interpreted as the new-era counterpart to Modest Mouse’s magnum opus “The Stars are Projectors”. As grand and majestic as the former, it imparts this free-flowing feeling of greater perspective. Strangers is going to be a polarising experience for a lot of Modest Mouse fans but I admire the diversity above all things. Yeah, there are moments that sound tirade and played out but after 19 years I can’t not love a band that puts a track as perceptive “Of Course We Know” alongside “Shit in Your Cut” – now that’s imbalance.
PRETTY NEAT MUSIC
FAV TRACKS: Pups to Dust / Best Room / Ansel / Of Course We Know / Coyotes
LEAST FAV TRACK: Wicked Campaign