It’s been seven years since Modest Mouse last released an album but, as Isaac Brock sings ‘so easy to forget, how often we become susceptible to regret, I do regret’ over desolate strings on the title track that begins ‘Strangers To Ourselves’, his almost spoken Issaquah voice full of melancholy and wisdom, it feels like they haven’t been away.
That 2007’s ‘We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank’ was number one in the US might explain the pressures that led to them taking seven years to put a new record out (though there was also 2009’s ‘No One’s First and You’re Next’ EP). They even cancelled a tour in 2013 to finish this album. There were even rumours that guest stars like Big Boi might appear.
Yet the result is an album that sounds like, well, Modest Mouse (even down to the title’s construct of placing two seemingly conflicting ideas next to each other – good news/bad news, lonely/crowded). That, perhaps, is the thing: Modest Mouse can never be anything but their idiosyncratic selves. That means all the ingredients you want are here; showcasing what makes them so unique as well feeling like it’s looking back to what they’ve created before.
Since ‘Float On’ stole our hearts and set ablaze every indie-disco they have been huge, but the thing is they did it without really compromising their sound. Sure, ‘Dashboard’ sounded slightly streamlined and more built for the charts but there was still Brock’s weird flailing yelp; paired with frantic time signatures and head in the clouds celestial guitar.
And from first single ‘Lampshades On Fire’ it’s clear that ‘Strangers to Ourselves’ isn’t going to deviate from the winning formula (though there are also worrying hints of Chilli Peppers too). It takes ‘Float On’ and ‘Dashboards’ anthemics and that yelp-shout and melds it into something that seems too familiar.
But the album works through a lot more ideas than that. It’s long – a 15 song double LP – but that means it takes you through some sonic side streets you might not have exactly expected. The first half especially is full of the brilliantly off-kilter swagger that makes Modest Mouse so great – brilliantly combining the frantic and the mellow. On ‘Pistol’ Brock does a weird voice robo-funk sexy singing ‘I was up all night not ready for the meaning, oh no’. It sounds vaguely like Vic Reeves doing a club singer version of a Justin Timberlake song (and by that I mean it’s amazing). The steel drum and strutting guitar of ‘Ansel’ is classic Modest Mouse (with classic Modest Mouse lyrics thrown in too: “You can’t know what you can never really know, would you ever want to know? How the hell would you know?”). By the time the upbeat brass stomp of ‘The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box’ with Brock singing ‘We’re gonna throw a party’ has us dancing on tables, the beautiful ‘Coyote’ (their equivalent of a power ballad) and ‘Pups To Dust’ feel like a welcome breather.
The second half seems to sag slightly after ‘Wicked Campaign’s’ shimmering sunset synths. ‘Be Brave’ is too overblown while ‘God Is an Indian and You’re an Asshole’ is a title that could never be bettered musically and it doesn’t try – it’s more a kind of skit in the middle of the album. Yet it finishes with ‘Of Course’, maybe one of the best things they’ve ever written. It’s a darkly shimmering anthem, heavy drums merging with piano that twinkles like stars as Brock sings ‘of course we don’t know what we’re here for’ and spectral backing vocals.
Lyrically it brings the album together – Brock’s concerns with not knowing, his homespun wisdom and constant mentions of ghosts, of making a mess of things and making amends. Throughout there’s uncertainty but a shining sense of hope. And on ‘Shit In Your Cut’ he sings about having to “ride this winter out.” There are tough times sure, but there’s always something new on the horizon. ‘Strangers to Ourselves’ might have been a long time in the making but listening to it, it doesn’t feel like it has – and that’s a good thing. It’s bruised and brilliant, idiosyncratic and anthemic, sloppy and heartfelt. It’s an album only Modest Mouse could make.
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