Modest Mouse, well known for its early 2004 single “Float On,” has not released an album for eight years.
Strangers to Ourselves
Comprised primarily of singer/guitarist Isaac Brock, drummer Jeremiah Green and bassist Eric Judy, the American rock band was formed in 1993 in Issaquah, Wash. and gleaned its name from the Virginia Woolf story, “The Mark on the Wall.” Its debut album, This is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About, was released in 1996 and used popular soft rock elements such as quick guitar riffs and steady, softer drums. The Lonesome Crowded West is often labeled their breakthrough album and consequently gained the band a cult following that still exists today. 2007’s We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, the band’s fifth album, was the first Modest Mouse release to reach #1 on the Billboard 200 Charts.
The band’s anxiously awaited sixth album, Strangers to Ourselves, is set to release on Mar. 17 and consists of 15 songs, each more innovative than the last. This album explores musical techniques not yet breached in previous Modest Mouse endeavors such as warped vocals and off-kilter brass instruments, as seen in tracks like “Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL 1996)” and “Sugar Boats.” While these unconventional methods sometimes lead the album astray, without risk there would be no innovation.
The opening and titular track, “Strangers to Ourselves,” begins with a steady drumbeat and swelling violins before launching into Brock crooning “Lucky we’re so capable to forget” into the microphone. It’s fairly unstructured and is essentially just the musings of the lead singer, but it is an excellent way to set the stage for the rest of the album. “Lampshades on Fire” was the first single to be released and a glimpse of the hardcore drumming that has come to be associated with Modest Mouse. It has everything — catchy “ba ba ba das,” overlapping vocals, lyrics about mistakes and moving on. Directly following “Strangers to Ourselves,” “Lampshades on Fire” gets the blood flowing and launches into Modest Mouse’s new sound.
“Shit in Your Cut” slows things down again with sultry guitar riffs and mysterious, growly vocals. Brock simultaneously harbors a bitterness towards humanity and loneliness as witnessed in the lines “With the strain and the comforting / You know everyone needs to go / But don’t everyone go at once.” The following track, “Pistol,” is the weirdest number on the album. The title of the song references American spree killer Andrew Cunanan, but the actual song is entirely about sex. With heavy drums, distorted speaking vocals and lines like, “Come into my room and clean my pistol loaded up,” the whole song is one giant euphemism.
From “Pistol,” the album heads to “Ansel,” a sobering tale with a folky beat that describes Brock’s brother’s hiking accident. “The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box” is the longest song at just over six minutes and feels like a jack-in-the-box that is constantly on the edge of popping up. The tempo increases with swirling vocals and builds to an unsatisfying ending. “Coyotes” is arguably the simplest song, but one of the best. Brock touches on humanity’s destructive habits again, singing “Mankind’s behaving like some serial killers / Giant old monsters afraid of the sharks.” The straightforward guitar plucks and swelling chorus allow the lyrics themselves to take center stage.
The guitar on “Pups to Dust” throws it back to early Modest Mouse and the lyrics address broader concepts, such as human purpose, “We don’t belong here/We were just born here,” and reasons to live.
“Sugar Boats” is another curveball, using a jazzy circus tune and distorted, winding machine sounds to throw the listener into some strange, upside down universe. The lyrics tend to disappear between the ringing cowbells and bold trumpets, but Brock attempts to regain control and sticks to the same themes of ignorance as to the purpose of life.
“Wicked Campaign” is vocal heavy, relying mainly on the song’s lyrics to carry it through. In a movie, it’s the type of song that would be playing during a montage of the main character driving around while they make an important decision. “Be Brave” is gritty, substantial and repetitive. The shark metaphor makes a return with “As sharks in sheep’s clothing / Talking with our hips,” but the rest of the song is an anthem for human resiliency, which is always appreciated.
“God is an Indian and You’re an Asshole” is a repetitive, yet entertaining interlude with the only lyrics being “God is an Indian and you’re an asshole / Get on your horse and ride.”
“The Tortoise and the Tourist” has received a positive response amongst dedicated Modest Mouse fans and for just cause. Echoing the title of the album, the song uses powerful lyrics to describe packing up and leaving life behind. “The Best Room” is a quick, upbeat, sarcastic response to “The Tortoise and the Tourist.” It’s the makeshift ending to Strangers to Ourselves, summing up all the previous thoughts in a stompy rant. “Of Course We Know” is the true end to the album, minimizing the vocals and maximizing the contemplative guitar solos. Brock comments one final time, “What we’re here for/We just do not know,” bringing the album full circle with just as few answers as it began with.
At its heart Strangers to Ourselves is the same Modest Mouse that fans know and love, just eight years older. Brock continues to sing about his distaste for humanity, but adds an element of active curiosity in his quest for the purpose of life. While some tracks may not fit expectations, part of the beauty of a distinguished band is their ability to take risks and expand their genre. Time will be the only way to see if Modest Mouse can continue their 22-year run and develop it into a lifetime.