It has been eight years since Modest Mouse released a full-length album. That’s not quite an eternity for a rock act, but it’s unusual for one that did not break up or have a significant hiatus during that time. Modest Mouse toured intermittently, and occasionally dropped new music into their sets.
In those eight years, Johnny Marr – the legendary Smiths guitarist who joined the group during the sessions for We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank – amicably left Modest Mouse, joined another band, left that band and released two solo albums. More distressingly for longtime fans, founding bassist Eric Judy retired from the band, taking with him a sonically important part of their sound.
Its testament to the band’s legendary consistency that, even after eight years and the departure of a significant member, Modest Mouse sound like as if they picked up exactly where they left off on their new release, Strangers to Ourselves.
First single “Lampshades on Fire” is nowhere near as anthemic as “Float On” or “Dashboard”, but everything else here is distinctly Modest Mouse: Isaac Brock’s wild-man yowl, the band’s trademark watery guitar snarl, the quietly contained manic energy that boils over in the last few bars. It is, unmistakably, a Modest Mouse single. It’s much of the same on the rest of the album. The band does not make any sonic departures or attempts to change their sound.
At points, the album recalls the moody, atmospheric guitar pop found on their early records like This is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About. Opener “Strangers to Ourselves” recalls that album’s opener “Dramamine” with its meandering guitar and thin production. Other, quieter songs like “Coyotes”, “The Tortoise and the Tourist” and “Of Course We Know” add to the darker reflective town of much of the album.
The record is best on its uptempo songs. The manic, itchy guitar of “The Ground Walks, With Time in a Box” positively recalls The Moon and Antarctica. The record’s best song, “Wicked Campaign” is an airy new wave pop number dominated by synthesizers. That instrument is an uncharacteristic choice for the band, but it perfectly accompanies the song’s arpeggiated guitars and pummeling drums. It’s the one time on the record where the band does something completely different from what is expected by them, and it’s certainly a winning change-up.
The only real misstep on the album is “Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami FL, 1996)”. The pitch-sifting effect on Isaac Brock’s voice is a poor match for his talents and the performance is messy, and not in an endearing way.
There has been some talk about how this album is another sonic departure for the band, but I honestly don’t hear it. This is identifiably a Modest Mouse record, and has everything that you’d come to expect from the band at this point in their career. This is neither a positive nor a negative towards the album. I really wish they would have switched it up instead of making a largely by-the-numbers record, but they also do not embarrass themselves here. It is a largely solid output by a workhorse of a band.
Fans of Modest Mouse that were concerned that their long absence from the studio had dulled Brock’s sharp wit or songwriting need not worry. Despite some minor stumbles, this is a solid return effort for MM. Hopefully, it won’t take the better part of a decade for them to follow it up.