At what point is an artistic work truly complete? I’ve been a musician long enough to know that the temptation to endlessly tweak and rearrange and augment an album is ever present. Spending a long time with a project can be beneficial, as meditation on the same subject can sometimes yield breakthroughs or new directions. At some point, though, an artist has to throw caution to the wind and declare their work “finished,” or else risk letting it suffer under its own bloat. In the eight year interim since their last studio release, indie rock pioneers Modest Mouse have jettisoned a guitarist and a bassist, switched producers multiple times, promised and broken release dates, and just generally given off the vibe of a band in uncertain flux. And yet, against all odds, a new album is here, and it’s real, and you can listen to it. But the passage of time both shows and doesn’t show; Modest Mouse’s first proper release in close to a decade, Strangers to Ourselves, is somehow in the unique position of being both overstuffed with ideas and lacking any sort of innovation. If you wanted to hear something fresh rather than listen to a band indulge all their tried-and-true idiosyncrasies, well, I’m sorry, but you won’t find it here.
Of course, that’s not to say it’s entirely a bad thing—Modest Mouse has been moving mostly laterally since the major tectonic shift on Good News for People Who Love Bad News. That album, which embraced pop melodies and higher production value over the twangy, atonal weirdness of their earlier records, kicked off a clearly defined and commercially acclaimed second career phase for the band. I’m a Pop Boy at heart, so the follow-up, 2007’s We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, is the high water mark in my mind. Some legitimately fantastic pop rock cuts, guest vocals by James Mercer (The Shins), and stellar lead guitar work by personal hero Johnny fuckin’ Marr (The Smiths), make it a natural, if slight, evolution from Good News. I realize that might be an unpopular opinion among many Modest Mouse purists, who claim that “Float On” was the harbinger of selling out and mediocrity; with that in mind, you might agree with my formal score of Strangers to Ourselves:
Modest Mouse – Strangers to Ourselves (2015) Officially Unofficial Deadshirt Score: “Sure, I Guess”
— Updog Funk (@Slammy_P) March 18, 2015
Truth be told, it’s an okay album. If you came to hear Modest Mouse at their mousiest and most modest, that’s exactly what you’re going to get. Lead singer Issac Brock’s insane, cartoonish voice is as much of the main attraction as it ever was, vacillating from a broken-glass growl, to a coyote yelp, to a velvety moan. When it’s firing on all cylinders, Strangers to Ourselves provides a handful of tracks that stand among the best the band has ever released. First single “Lampshades on Fire” reads like a reboot of “Ocean Breathes Salty,” trading bopping Rhodes for plinking piano and wavering harmonic hits. Disco thumper “The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box” is more than a few shades of “Dashboard”, complete with horns and a sweet breakdown and extended coda. “Coyotes” is probably the prettiest ballad Brock has ever penned, with delicate finger-picked guitar and a beautiful choral outro. And album highlight “The Best Room”, supposedly inspired over twenty years ago when Brock witnessed the Phoenix Lights from an airplane over Arizona, is a laid-back, sunny track arriving just in time for warmer weather.
Other times, it’s a little hard to ignore the album creaking under its own weight. “Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996)” is not only a stupid mouthful of a title, but also a downright unpleasant track; pitched down vocals, a sliced up synthesized drum pattern, and farty-filtered guitar might have worked individually, but thrown together they’re an overwhelming mess. Similarly, “Sugar Boats” throws in too many overbaked ideas and instruments to make the four-minute running time very tolerable. The calypso-lite steel drums in “Ansel” are kind of grating and out of place on an otherwise groovy track. A lot of the tracks I didn’t mention by name in this review are, at best, inoffensive. Between the highlights, I often found myself losing focus and would have to will myself to pay more attention to the music, even on repeat listens. It kind of fades into the background.
Ultimately, I walked away from Strangers to Ourselves with the vague feeling that I’ve heard all this before, albeit in a bunch of different configurations. Which is fine, I guess! Plenty of bands have committed much worse sins than carving out a groove and sticking to it. Surely, however, there is some irony in an album with this title actually being the most “itself” the band has ever sounded. There used to be a spark, an element of unpredictability to Modest Mouse that seems to have been largely snuffed out. With another album on the way “as quickly as it’s legally allowed”, the band seems eager to make up for lost time – let’s just hope they make up some lost ground as well.
Strangers to Ourselves is currently available in stores, digitally, or through the band’s website.