Good News for People Who Love Bad News (2004) created quite a predicament for Modest Mouse. It fashioned two varied groups of listeners – one being the purists, pissed off with the departure of the band from relative indie rock obscurity, and the other: teen girls, shouting “Oh my God! Modest Mouse!” when they heard “Float On” on the radio. The original fan-base will complain that the band has “sold out,” but finding harsh criticism for Good News that doesn’t involve the phrase “the old stuff was better” was difficult. So inherently, old Modest fans will be disgruntled by We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, and though the album is their most accessible yet, it doesn’t take away from their penchant for trying new things and making them work successfully.
We Were Dead is a slight continuation of Good News – featuring more glimpses of optimism and aesthetically pleasing harmonies juxtaposed with lead singer Isaac Brock’s callous vocals – which may or may not be a bad thing … depending on your loyalties to the group. “Fire It Up” features normal song conventions with a discernible chorus and bridge section and a hopeful ending from Brock: “Well we always, always, had it all.” “Little Motel” is a fluffy, harmonic contemplation on love, unlike their downtrodden, cynical productions of the past.
The addition of Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr to the group was the most eagerly anticipated storyline, but the move remains inconsequential, as most songs don’t exhibit a new guitar sound. But many offer richer harmonies and less grating slide-guitar work than past efforts, perhaps due to Marr’s presence. “Dashboard” may be the most obvious example, and will also be the most hated track on the album by purists. Quick and poppy guitar riffs meet a horn and a Far Eastern-sounding string section that strays miles away from their early aesthetic. Isaac Brock’s uncharacteristically sub-par lyrics are a surprise as well: “Well it would’ve been, could’ve been worse than you would ever know / Oh, the dashboard melted, but we still have the radio.”
Despite “Dashboard,” We Were Dead doesn’t lose any of Brock’s frank lyrical abilities, ones that still posit him as one of the most underrated lyricists of the current generation. The sharp “Parting of Sensory” sees Brock and company returning to the depressing territory of The Moon and Antarctica (2002), “Just a way to pull apart / Dehydrate back into minerals / A life long walk to the same exact spot.” The song effortlessly flows toward an uproarious climax of handclaps, vocal layering and violin as Brock stringently bellows “Someday you will die, somehow, and someone’s gonna steal your carbon.”
Modest Mouse also adds to their laundry list of collaborators on We Were Dead, enlisting the vocal abilities of James Mercer (The Shins), who makes a peculiar addition considering the contrasting styles of their respective bands. “Missed the Boat” boasts a backing chorus from Mercer and fades into a “Float On” type groove without all the poppy effects. Mercer’s vocals echo Brock’s in “We’ve Got Everything,” a choppy foot-stomper melded together by the pair’s unique harmonic blend.
Two of the albums closers successfully combine the new Modest Mouse with the old. “Spitting Venom” fuses the heavy guitar mish-mashes of This is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About (1996) with the new-school horns and Brock’s in-your-face lyrical rantings. “People as Places as People” may be one of the most simplistic effort on the album, but still packs a steady punch, held down by its direct lyrics: “It was not the intention / But we let it all go / Well it messed up the function / And sure fucked up the flow / I hardly have people that I needed to know / Cause you’re the people that I wanted to know.”
Whatever the reason for their new sound – search for stardom, Johnny Marr, boredom – We Were Dead doesn’t disappoint. No, it’s not the old Mouse, and we won’t have another Lonesome Crowded West, but Brock and crew are here to stay. So stop whining you purists, and quietly enjoy this fine album.
Three and a half stars out of five
We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank