It may be tough for some fans to accept, but Modest Mouse in 2015 is not the same band that it was in 1996 when it released its debut album. This is not a criticism at all, but a statement of fact–a band that began as a bare-bones, ramshackle trio playing dive bars has now evolved into an amorphous collective that headlines festivals. Strangers to Ourselves is light years from the type of album that the band made in their K Records days, but underneath the polished sheen and layers of instrumentation the listener can still find the idiosyncratic character that undeniably defines this as a Modest Mouse record. Not only are the oddball sensibility and humorous cynicism that are prevalent in their old releases still run rampant, but Isaac Brock and company continue to poke at the boundaries of what one expects musically from an indie rock record.
The album begins with the gorgeous title track, an ode to the ability to forget that is marked by a lovely string melody and dotted with countless instrumental ornamentations from the menagerie of supporting players, a moment of tranquility that recalls previous triumphs like “Gravity Rides Everything” and “The World at Large”. Lead single “Lampshades on Fire” follows, and musically it sounds like modern-day Modest Mouse in a nutshell–there are the bent harmonics, the ba-ba-ba backing vocals, the splashes of color from quirky instruments, but performed in a compact and cohesive manner. The lyrical theme covers classic Modest Mouse territory, with an overall narrative of escalating disasters that culminates in a plea of this-planet-is-fucked-so-let’s-move–“Pack up again head to the next place, where we’ll make the same mistakes. Burn it up or just chop it down this one’s done, so where to now” share space with non sequiturs like “our ass looks great inside these jeans,” with both sentiments inspiring the same deep contemplation from the listener.
Songs like the menacing “Shit In Your Cut” and the backwater circus-evoking “Sugar Boats” already have fit seamlessly into the band’s setlist, and the bouncy “The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box”, which features a groovy bassline that brings to mind “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes”, is destined to be a future live favorite, especially with an outro that begs to be extended and embellished. The delicate ballad “Coyotes” is another highlight that shows the band’s deft touch, especially as it swells into its final sing-along chorus with a lovely flourish of guitars. The Jeremiah Green-penned “God is an Indian and You’re an Asshole” should also delight fans of the band’s more peculiar tendencies that works as a great palate-cleanser and sets up the album’s final trio of the songs that concludes the album with a strong flourish.
Though the band hits on several aspects of their sound that should delight multiple segments of their fanbase, Modest Mouse does not provide a mere rehash of their previous work and continues to experiment, with the results having varying degrees of success. The bright, steel-drum-inflected “Ansel” and the skittering “Wicked Campaign” fit in comfortably with the rest of the album, whereas the spit-up and chewed-out “Pistol (A. Cunanan Miami FL. 1996)” threatens to stop Strangers dead in its tracks early on. The latter grows on the listener with repeated listens once the initial shock wears down and is an example of the band’s bravery in confronting the listener’s expectations, but it is also the obvious candidate for most-skipped track on the album.
Strangers to Ourselves is overstuffed at fifteen tracks, but this has long been a trademark of Modest Mouse albums, including classics like The Lonesome Crowded West and The Moon & Antarctica; fans look back fondly on those albums as a whole, but even on those records there are some rather weak tracks, though over time they help contribute to the group’s “anything goes” feel. Ever since “Float On” broke through into the mainstream, Modest Mouse has faced the charge from some fans that they “sold out”, though that is an unfair complaint–the band is as delightfully weird as ever and clearly follows their own muse, and their resultant popularity is not the product of a calculated shift to accommodate for more pedestrian tastes. Though the group as currently constructed cannot write a loose and rambling classic like “Trailer Trash”, sacrificing some freedom for some semblance of structure, but they can still venture into some pretty wild places.
It may not reach the heights of their landmark albums, but there is a consistency to Strangers to Ourselves that makes it a marked improvement over We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, which could be a slog to get through at times. It may not completely make up for the amount of time we’ve been waiting for a new Modest Mouse album, but we can at least take comfort in the fact that the next one should be coming very soon.