Modest Mouse: strangers to themselves?

Music

It has taken 8 years for the arrival of Strangers To Ourselves, the latest offering from alternative rock staple Modest Mouse, an extended period by any band’s standards. Yet, despite the band having lost founding member Eric Judy, it feels as if not much has happened at all since We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank debuted at No. 1 in the Billboard 200, way back in 2007. Strangers To Ourselves is a good digest for Modest Mouse initiates, but is perhaps a small disappointment for long-time fans, who will not find much more than the best tracks from the band’s first five albums. Fans may be willing to forgive, it is hard to fault a band that has been chugging away for two decades for not thumping out more seismic waves than these guys already have.

This is not to say that there is no experimentation on Strangers. By far the wackiest (and divisive) new track is “Pistol,” the group ditches their organic, guitar-driven feel for something more like a troubled parody of Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok.” The same critics who have waved off the new album as old hat seem to have equally failed to appreciate the playfulness of this track. Another breather comes in the form of the unbeatably-titled “God is an Indian and You’re an Asshole,” a half-assed acoustic chant that probably started as a drunken tour bus jam and barely evolved from there.

But as fans will recognise, that brand of humorous self-effacing is just one side of moody frontman Isaac Brock, who thankfully has not lost much of his fire since We Were Dead. On Strangers, as always, Brock’s vocal variety is downright feral, and his acrobatic phrasing is on-point. As for his lyrics, he falls back here on his nihilistic, first-person-plural philosophising about moral depravity, the failure of humanity, and nine-to-five American ennui (alluded to in the album’s title). This would run the risk of sounding cliché, if it were not for Modest Mouse’s peculiar gritty optimism, epitomised by “Float On,” the 2005 feel-good hit that put them on the map. On “Be Brave,” a pounding 6/8 merry-go-round-from-hell, fatalistic musing on classical ruins gives way to a passionate, eponymous rallying cry intended to revive whatever is still alive in the hopeless and fatigued masses.

Brock refuses to pity himself for too long, aware of the problems of moaning about the state of the world without trying to find answers. On “The Best Room,” which layers bending guitar licks over a Red Hot Chili Peppers-like strut, Brock, in characteristic hoots and hollers, begins by lambasting privileged, “western concerns,” but punctuates with sweeter, compassionate tones, pleading, “Ain’t it hard feeling tired all the time?” Aware of when the existentialist bludgeoning gets tiresome, he ingeniously ropes the listener back in by scribbling the outline of a solution, one characterised by an authentic feeling of sorrow.

Indeed, if the ageing Modest Mouse have changed in any way over the years, it is that they are starting to do sadness better than anger: this might be their saddest album to-date. Among the best new tracks is “Coyotes,” a heavy lullaby that offsets acoustic whispering with spacey electric yearning as Brock bemoans humanity’s destruction of nature. And then there is highly personal “Ansel,” in which a complex arrangement of percussive trots and driving chordal riffs prefigures a memoir about Brock ruining the last reunion he had with his brother before he died in an avalanche.

While fans were probably hoping for greater risks, Strangers to Ourselves turns out to be a solid, enjoyable listen. It is not as bold or as challenging as its predecessors, but it justly showcases the band’s collective talents as well as those of it’s individual players, including drummer Jeremiah Green, the unsung hero who deftly ties each song together with relentless energy. And since Brock’s oversized metaphors are adequately tempered with pyrotechnics and catchy grooves, Strangers is a good opportunity to brood about cosmic injustice without feeling too much like the angsty teenager you were when the last Modest Mouse album came out.