Modest Mouse resurfaces with ‘Strangers to Ourselves’

First album in eight years brings a mix of old and new sounds

Joe Jolley, Copy Editor
Originally published April 6, 2015

Eight years is a long time to wait between albums. Despite this, indie-rock veterans Modest Mouse have not faltered in the release of “Strangers to Ourselves,” their first full LP since 2007.

Far from losing their way, the band has returned with eight more years of age and experience under their belt.

“Strangers to Ourselves” resumes the band’s break from the lo-fi, garage rock sound of their earlier works. But just because this album isn’t rough around the edges doesn’t mean it isn’t just as much Modest Mouse as the first albums were.

If “This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About” and “The Lonesome Crowded West” were frontman Isaac Brock shouting drunk from the rooftops, “Strangers to Ourselves” is an impassioned but well-written oratory.

It opens slowly with its title track, a melancholy lament about the aimless confusion of the human race. It sets the theme and musical tone, for all of the songs that follow; The shortsightedness of man and its self-assured doom through desecration of the planet are the overarching topics of Brock’s musings throughout the record.

“Lampshades on Fire” addresses these issues upfront with rapid-fire, non-stop verses describing the constant, self-destructive party that is humanity: “Well, we’re the human race, we’re going to party at this place and then move on (tough luck).”

The up-beat guitar and bass match the energy of Brock’s vocals while ironically underscoring the gravity of the lyrics, giving the song a careless and constantly moving tone that fits the image of the species Brock is describing.

“Lampshades on Fire” is an extrospective on the human party. “Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami FL. 1996)” — by far the strangest and most unusual sounding track on the album — takes us inside that party.

Brock’s voice is pitched down and distorted, as are the heavy bass line, pounding drums and electronic beat.

The title refers to spree killer Andrew Cunanan — whose last residence before his 1997 suicide was Miami, Florida — and the song embodies the spirit of such a person.

Lines like “why don’t you come to my room and clean my pistol” and “I’ve got a pistol that I need to unload” are thinly veiled innuendos, implying sex or violence or both.

The heavy distortion and Brock’s manic vocals create a surreal tone, almost drug induced — fitting, as one line mentions “I’ve got my cocaine in the glove box now.”

The whole thing seems to be a tongue-in-cheek caricature of modern society, sarcastically criticising its focus on sex, drugs and violence. The song is so goofy and out of the blue that it’s hard not to grin when it comes on.

Brock and his crew are quick to return to seriousness, however.

“Be Brave” features some of the most caustic and critical lines Brock has ever written. Refrains such as “well the Earth doesn’t care and we hardly even matter, we’re just a bit more piss to push out its full bladder” show his utter contempt for mankind’s treatment of its home, and captures the sense of existential futility that is so often a central feature of Modest Mouse’s music.

That being said, “Strangers to Ourselves” is not without disappointments.

While lyrically one of the strongest songs on the album, “Wicked Campaign” falls short in other aspects. The muffled, syncopated drum beat is a new sound, but it proves much less interesting than the usual fluid and rolling style drummer Jeremiah Green employs. The same goes for the guitar; it follows a predictable chord progression that lacks all of the depth the band usually has in abundance. It comes across as generic. It isn’t a bad song — Brock’s lyrics and delivery hold it up and make it enjoyable to listen to — it just isn’t as intriguing or ear-catching as their other work.

“Strangers to Ourselves” as a whole is not entirely a step away from Modest Mouse’s old work, but neither is it a step back toward it. It is more a step sideways, a rediscovery of the process of making new music after eight years off the job. It pairs experiments like “Pistol” alongside throwbacks like “The Tortoise and the Tourist.” Through the center of it all wind Brock’s lyrics: usually metaphorical, often strange, but always thought provoking and brought to life with a vocal style as varied as the emotions they elicit.