opinion byBRENDAN FRANK
It’s a little disconcerting to consider that I have been waiting for Strangers to Ourselves for my entire adult life. When Modest Mouse released We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank in March 2007, George W. Bush was president, Twitter was a fledgling and Vladimir Putin was awaiting coronation as Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. We were bracing for a Kanye v. 50 Cent showdown. It has been an epoch in internet years, and Issaquah’s Modest Mouse have been largely absent from the aftermath of mainstream/indie dovetail they helped to precipitate in the early aughts.
Modest Mouse so tastefully executed their transition into a big label band that their latter-day output seems unlikely to alter by their legacy. Take REM; it’s easier than you might think to ignore a decade-plus of mediocre releases and just remember the good times. But good on Modest Mouse for not putting us in that position. Strangers to Ourselves finds them tinkering with the sounds in their toolbelts while remaining identifiably themselves.
Not to be overlooked in the maelstrom is the fact that Modest Mouse in 2015 is a very different band. Bassist Eric Judy, one of the group’s three founding members, left in 2012 along with Joe Plummer, while legendary vagabond Johnny Marr departed in 2009. New to the mix since Ship are bassist Russell Higbee, and role players Jim Fairchild and Lisa Molinaro. Of course, Isaac Brock, the band’s heart, soul, brain and mouthpiece remains, as does drummer and founding member Jeremiah Green.
Make no mistake though, this isn’t the same band that made Ship, nor does it sound like it. The booming, omnivorous production captures the freneticism of their recent live shows, with pieces of shrapnel flying in all directions, particularly on the longer tracks. This is a busier Modest Mouse than you may remember, even if the majority of their songs still fit within the misshapen box of indie rock. The string-bending surrealism pops up here and there, most notably on the title track and “The Tortoise and the Tourist”, but there are new veins to be mined as well. With its strong-arm guitar lead, dead-eyed harmonies and intoxicatingly layered percussion, “The Ground Walks, With Time In A Box” chews the scenery to delirious effect, while the creaking and cackling of “Shit In Your Cut” is sober and gripping. The carnivalesque boogie of “Sugar Boats” is the sound of a band playing in a building on fire, drawing on Brock’s bone-dry humour for a takedown of humanity that will double as a festival hit. “Wicked Campaign” flirts with synthpop, and the campfire holler of “God is an Indian and You’re an Asshole” is an earned moment of levity.
Brock's barbed redneck philosophizing remains potent, dichotomized by a desire for answers to the unanswerable and scorn for civilization. He runs roughshod over western values, consumerism, and the cultural hivemind. “Burn it up or just chop it down/This one’s done so where to now?” he squawks on lead single “Lampshades on Fire”. Even the twinkling hymn “Coyotes” gets in on the misanthropy, as Brock remarks “Mankind’s behaving like some serial killer.” Strangers isn’t about remembering; it’s about forgetting, how our environment shapes the way we think and how we act, both on an individual level and in aggregate. Our minds make for us, and it’s a hell of a lot easier to plead ignorance when you’re on autopilot: “Though reckless feeling great/We’re the sexiest of all primates.” Here, Brock isn’t so much a radical as a documentarian, encouraging the us to connect the dots he draws without blaring the horn.
For all of the quality on Strangers has to offer, “Pistol” needs to be mentioned. Named for a spree murderer in 1997, it’s a severe misstep nearly destroys the album’s first half. Brock sings like he’s having an allergic reaction over a boom-bap beat that Sleigh Bells probably left on the cutting room floor, and things really go nowhere. It’s easily the worst song that’s ever made it onto a Modest Mouse LP. “Be Brave” has similar struggles, with a chorus that neither catches the ear nor says much.
Strangers isn’t bottled lightning like The Moon & Antarctica or The Lonesome Crowded West, nor does it contain a magnitude 9 single like Good News or Ship, but its unwieldy stature and combative stance compliments Modest Mouse’s storied discography. Sounding off on unpleasant realities is a thankless job. Brock has made a living out of it, and he doesn’t need our thanks anyways. As we now know, you tell him what you want, and he’ll tell you what you get. B