Modest Mouse Strangers to Ourselves

[Epic; 2015]

Styles: Modest Mouse, post-The Moon and Antarctica
Others: most of what passes for “indie rock” on commercial radio

Despite all that’s transpired since the release of We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, as far as Isaac Brock’s little corner of the musical kingdom goes, things haven’t changed so much as blossomed into something that 2007 only hinted at. The world we live in now is one that Modest Mouse helped to create. The break-out success of 2004’s “Float On” cleared space in the mainstream for some of the friendlier sounds from the margins of millennial rock, a space that Arcade Fire paved over and built a monument on when the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences threw a Grammy at them in 2011. In another era, we might have witnessed a weird and wonderful transformation of the rock & roll landscape after a coup like that, like the 90s when record execs with dollar signs in their eyes thought they could turn Cop Shoot Cop or The Jesus Lizard into another Pearl Jam. But things are a lot more scientific now. They ran these marvelous aberrations through their vivisection engines and out the other end drooled a colorless, odorless, flavorless paste: Mumford & Sons, Foster the People, fun., an endless parade of mediocrities whose faces blur together like the contents of a cheap notebook left out in the rain.

Given all of that, a song like “Float On” would likely sound as radically out of place on the radio today as it did over 10 years ago. There is still a need in this world for Brock’s strained optimism, for his abundant cynicism, and for the bizarre pop convolutions of his band. Which is why it’s so disheartening that Strangers to Ourselves aspires to so little.

The eight intervening years have given me ample time to mull over Modest Mouse’s latter-day output. While the unevenness of Good News for People Who Love Bad News (2004) originally rankled me, I’ve come to appreciate its careening eclecticism, a quality that’s been the hallmark of some of the group’s most beloved work. We Were Dead, by contrast, felt safer. It’s a more consistently enjoyable album, but it achieved that by latching onto Good News’s most obvious aspects and not venturing too far from them. Strangers continues this trend towards homogenization, intensifies it even. While We Were Dead still made room for Tom Waits-y sea shanties (“March into the Sea”), cataclysmic meditations on mortality (“Parting of the Sensory”), and epic-length acoustic folk songs with extended synth codas (“Spitting Venom”), Strangers further narrows the band’s focus on the fractured funk-pop that’s brought them the greatest amount of commercial recognition.

It’s a move that I attribute less to any mercenary intentions than to a general failure of imagination. The ubiquitous lead single “Lampshades on Fire” is a snapshot of the album’s malaise in miniature, its onomatopoeic “BOP-bop-BOP-bop-BOP-bop-BAdda-dup” chorus recycled directly from “The World at Large” and indirectly from the guitar line of “Fire It Up.” Opening (and title) track “Strangers to Ourselves” feels like so much table-setting, a throwaway intro stretched well beyond its logical limit. “The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box” is just a protracted reimagining of “We’ve Got Everything.” Even the attempts to add new sounds to the Mouse repertoire — the steel drum on “Ansel,” the down-pitched vocals on “Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996)” — feel like desperate window dressing.

But then along comes “The Best Room,” which gives the lie to everything I just mentioned. Remember how I complained about the “BOP-bop-BOP-bop-BOP-bop-BAdda-dup” chorus of “Lampshades on Fire?” Well, it’s right fucking here again, in guitar form. Remember how I complained that most of the songs here failed to advance beyond the most obvious aspects of the band’s post-millennial releases? Well, if someone slipped “The Best Room” smack dab in the middle of We Were Dead, then I doubt you’d even bat an eyelash. But there’s an act of release that happens here that sets it apart from the surrounding tracks. The instrumental bridge that kicks in at roughly the 1:50 mark is a glorious marriage of the sloppy guitar freakouts of the band’s past and their more streamlined, pop-oriented output. Listen closely and you can hear the echoes of Brock’s youthful abandon, the reverberations of mechanical birds chirping in the distance. And it’s not like he’s lost any of his incisiveness as a lyricist. Strangers is bursting at the seams with delightfully incongruous imagery: air falling out of open windows, lovers serenading empty balconies, humankind personified as serial killer. It’s just that the musical ideas, by and large, are no longer able to match the audacity of their frontman’s lyrical conceits.

Stripped of all expectations that may have accreted in the band’s eight-year absence, Strangers is a fundamentally passable album. You can listen to it beginning to end without coming across too much that will grate on your nerves, and it’s far and away smarter than 90% of the pop-oriented rock music clogging the airwaves these days. But that’s a pretty low bar to set for a band whose works have cast such a long shadow across the three decades their career has straddled. Nothing here feels necessary, and very little even worth repeating. No one’s expecting Modest Mouse to set the world ablaze all over again this late in their career, but they’re damn sure capable of more than this.

Links: Modest Mouse - Epic

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