Modest Mouse: Strangers to Ourselves

On Strangers to Ourselves, Modest Mouse often come off like strangers to themselves.
Modest Mouse
Strangers to Ourselves
Epic / Glacial Pace

On Strangers to Ourselves, Modest Mouse often come off like strangers to themselves. For a group that has maintained such a distinctive musical profile for so long, there’s something about Strangers to Ourselves that makes it feel like it’s the work of a band in flux. The process of making Strangers to Ourselves seems to reflect the chaos and indulgence you hear in the first new album from Isaac Brock and company in eight years: With an initial attempt to make a new record with Big Boi scrapped along the way and after founding bassist Eric Judy left the group in 2012, Strangers to Ourselves was finished, with the help of four outside producers, after Brock built his own studio/hang-out space out of an old factory in Portland. So while there are twists and turns aplenty on every Modest Mouse journey, this one veers more widely and wildly, from the jittery, off-kilter melodies they’re known for, to unexpectedly delicate atmospherics, to bombastic electro-pop.

If most Modest Mouse albums can seem overstuffed and (too) long, that’s even more of the case with Strangers to Ourselves, which goes all over the map stylistically and often pushes its forays to extremes. That’s what jumps out about Strangers to Ourselves, how far Brock extends the poles that mark off the territory Modest Mouse is working in. Despite teasing the album with crowd-pleasingly familiar rompers like “Lampshades on Fire” and “The Best Room” and the surreal mid-tempo acoustic piece “Coyotes”, Strangers to Ourselves actually strikes out in all sorts of far-flung directions. The pre-release tracks turn out to be a feint when you hear the pretty, gently melodic tones that start the album on the title-track opener. There, Brock takes what might be the impressionistic background of a typical Modest Mouse song and pushes it to the fore, layering tender strings, deliberate guitar effects, and dream-like vocals.

But the hazy mellifluence of “Strangers to Ourselves” hardly sets the tone for Strangers to Ourselves, since more of the 15-track album is at the other end of the spectrum, accentuating a brash modern-rock sheen that amps up Modest Mouse’s warped exuberance with pop excess. The most egregious example of this is the already polarizing “Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996)”, a rapped electroclash-y sketch supposedly inspired by the story of Gianni Versace’s killer which actually sounds more over the top than even that description. While there are always moments on a Modest Mouse album when Brock brushes up against the limit of questionable taste, “Pistol” pushes right past it and keeps on going: some might appreciate Brock’s gusto on “Pistol” or be tempted to assume it’s all a put on à la Ween (as the press release does), but when he sneers gross-out lines like, “Why don’t you come into my room and clean my pistol, no duh?” to cheesy keyboards, there’s not really any excuse or rationalization that can make you want to get it when you don’t.

Maybe nothing else on Strangers to Ourselves strikes such a discordant tone as “Pistol” does, but the work as a whole is a stylistic hodge-podge of instrumentation and tones that can be befuddling. The glossed-up new wave of “The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box” starts out like it could be Modest Mouse’s most radio-friendly, streamlined piece, until it’s undercut by weird, ill-matched adornments like banjo, horns, and squishy, almost aquatic sounding percussion that create a textural mess, not contrast. Likewise, “Wicked Campaign” doesn’t seem to know where it’s going, starting out like a dubby, reverb-y electro-pop soundscape before taking a detour and somehow ending up like a cover of the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s “Maps”, with Brock “Oh-oh-oh”-ing almost as if he was singing along to Karen O’s wailed lines.

With everything flying so fast and furiously on Strangers to Ourselves as Brock tries on different pop-rock styles, it’s easy to lose track of the fact that what’s made Modest Mouse’s career remarkable is that they got their commercial soundtracks and Kidz Bop covers by having the pop universe come to them, not the other way around. It’s when Modest Mouse’s own signature approach provides a strong foundation for the new elements to add to that Strangers to Ourselves finds a happier medium between its own barbed rock aesthetic and a more pop-minded angle. “Pups to Dust” starts out as one of those oddball mid-tempo Modest Mouse ballads, quirky enough that when a disco interlude and scratchy strings appear near the end, they somehow make sense according to the track’s own internal logic. Something of the same goes for the sea shanty/saloon sing-along hybrid “Sugar Boats”, on which the sharp, showy riffs are muscular enough to step into glammy hard rock territory without feeling tacky or too off key.

Indeed, what’s frustrating about Strangers to Ourselves is that Modest Mouse doesn’t need to wander so far afield on it, not when doing what they do best still works well here. “Lampshades on Fire” and “The Best Room” might be by-the-numbers Modest Mouse singles, but the rhythmic riffing and buoyant beats don’t step on what makes Brock’s songwriting unique. If anything, “Lampshades on Fire” is one of the few selections on Strangers to Ourselves where the signal isn’t distracted by the noise, as Brock gets across what’s supposed to be the album’s overarching message on environmental degradation, like when he observes in his own enigmatically fable-like way, “Spend some time floating out in space / Find another planet, make the same mistakes.”

More poignant and telling, though, is one of the album’s more immediate pieces, “Ansel”, on which Brock meditates about the passing of his brother. Conveying the kind of deep-down sentiments that can only be expressed by going back to the basics, Brock clears away most of the clutter here and gives himself more space to wonder existentially as he second guesses himself, “Na, you can’t know / The last time you’ll ever see another soul / No, you never get to know.” It’s a moment that stands out not just because of the self-knowledge that Brock possesses, but also because he’s able to articulate it through a musical identity that feels comfortably his own. In that way, it’s all the more stunning and glaring on an album where Modest Mouse don’t always show or seem to know what they are.

RATING 6 / 10