Music Review: Modest Mouse’s “Strangers to Ourselves”

ARTIST: Modest Mouse
ALBUM TITLE: Strangers to Ourselves
LABEL: Glacial Pace/ Epic Records
RELEASE DATE: March 17th, 2015

Modest Mouse "Strangers to Ourselves"

There are two forms of nostalgia elicited by listening to music that played a formative role during one’s teenage years. The first is a congenial and vague patchwork of memories that evokes a warm, sentimental mood. The latter is a sort of violent, sensory assault of the past on the present. Some songs are stab wounds, leaving an open sore of unrealized teenage angst and ambition. For many, Modest Mouse resides in the latter category. The tension between the group’s early and more recent releases stems from the listener’s nostalgic yearning to return to a place that doesn’t exist. While it’s not uncommon for early fans of any group to resist deviations from their seminal sound, in the case of Modest Mouse, this phenomenon is more exaggerated than most. Yet, their most recent album offers a compromise– a work that valiantly attempts to transcend the schism of their discography. And as far as compromises go, this one is pretty spectacular.

Strangers to Ourselves, Modest Mouse’s sixth release in almost twenty years, is the group’s first studio album since 2007. To label the album as “hotly anticipated” is a grave understatement. This eight-year stretch has been the longest intermission for the group, yet this time has not been quiet. Rumors swirled about collaborations with Outkast’s Big Boi and Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic (neither appeared on the finished album). They toured tirelessly, headlining a number of festivals. Outside the studio, front-man Isaac Brock cultivated a passion for beekeeping and a deep interest in nature, reflected in the album’s meditation on climate destruction and the dystopian future we’re careening towards. This is not unexpected as he grew up in Montana and Washington State, and his songs often convey a sense of expansive open skies, distant shadowy mountain peaks, and the sort of humbling, cerebral vertigo one feels when confronted by the majestic and menacing impersonal vastness of the natural world. All fifteen songs were recorded at Isaac Brock’s recording studio, Ice Cream Party, in Portland, Oregon with an assembly all-stars from the Pacific Northwest music scene: James Mercer (The Shins), by Andrew Weiss (Butthole Surfers), Tucker Martine, Clay Jones, Brian Deck and more.

The album’s many successful moments meld Modest Mouse’s earlier jagged sound with the heightened production values they’ve honed more recently. After the album’s eponymous opener, a gentle lullaby of dancing wind chimes and a softly thudding heartbeat bass line, we careen into full-on Modest Mouse force with “Lampshades on Fire,” the album’s first single. The irresistibly catchy rhythm and Brock’s “ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-da-da-da” have a high probability of causing involuntary hip gyration. Modest Mouse’s calling card is their unique brand of guitar tones; on this song, and many others, it sounds like Brock is playing his custom Wicks guitar on the floor of the ocean, the recording engineer tracking using Sonar. Brock’s vocal inflection is distinct and idiosyncratic; his delivery is staccato, often unintelligible, and almost always theatrical.

One of the strongest tracks, “The Ground Walks, With Time In A Box,” perfectly marries the signature guitar complexities of their early years with the dance anthem veneer of the more recent releases. Immediately you are hooked into the manic chase of this song as the amphetamine drums pound and the guitars twang in a dexterous, intoxicating dance. Brock speak-sings the verses at a furious pace, mimicking the undulations of the guitar part: “The world composes with his shirt tails wrinkled hanging out; bang us together see what sort of sounds we make right now.” At 6:10 it’s the longest track on the album, and it remains fairly even throughout; there’s a brief moment of disassembly four minutes in, but we are quickly drawn back by the drums’ persistent punch. A slightly less rambunctious song would lose the listener midway, but the monotony of its frenetic composition gives the listener time to settle in. This song would not be out of place on any Modest Mouse album, an almost unfathomable feat.

Brock does take risks, most notably with “Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996)” and “Sugar Boats.” The former explores a hybrid industrial-death-disco, with a crunchy polyrhythm and funky demonic vocals that evoke the divine trinity of Trent Reznor, James Murphy and Aleister Crowley. The latter possesses a similar genre mash-up: demented-carnival-ragtime-hardcore. These two songs are the strongest outliers on the album and demand the most forgiveness from the listener. Moments like these are ameliorated by the way in which the album is sequenced; heavy moments are balanced by the light, crucially relieving the listener when necessary. A supreme example of this is the tenth track, “Wicked Campaign.” The placement of this song is crucial: two-thirds of the way through the album, and following one of the more unwieldy, grating songs. We’re immediately greeted by a sonic sigh of relief as ethereal synth tones waft over programmed drums. Brock sings, “So I just learned my face, but I forgot my name; I’m gonna wear this smile like it’s some stupid toupee.” The songs picks up as propulsive guitars storm in; the song continues to ebb and flow, until it overflows into a euphoric anthem, with James Mercer singing backup “oh oh oh’s ….” This song is an indie anthem in the traditional sense: there are pensive respites, emotional heavily orchestrated crescendos, existential musings on identity and consumerism, and plenty of ‘oh oh ohs’ to ‘oh’ along to. While many bands have explored this form, there’s a mysterious element in this track that makes it feel vital and new.

Throughout their two-decade career, Modest Mouse has transitioned from being a scrappy trio to a veritable indie rock institution. While this album is bound to have its detractors, it does hold the potential to appease the widest swath of their fan base. There are beloved elements from their storied discography smattered throughout the album’s innovative fifteen tracks. This band will never return to the form that many of their fans originally fell in love with, but like many sentimental trysts from the past, this is probably for the best.