Since 2004’s Good News for People Who Love Bad News and its hit single ‘Float On’ saw Modest Mouse stumble upon mainstream popularity from a position of relative obscurity, the inevitable, tedious debate around “selling out” has ensued. While most fans would agree that Good News and 2007’s We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank did not come close to matching the epic character of the band’s raw and angst-ridden earlier albums, some seemed to lose their cool more than others over this. Personally, I feel both albums, particularly Good News, were still very strong, intelligent and exciting records, if not as ground-breaking or perceptive as The Moon and Antarctica (2000) and The Lonesome Crowded West (1997).
Still, I think it is fair to say that even loyal fans such as myself were approaching this latest release with more trepidation than excitement. On We Were Dead, it certainly seemed to an extent that the band had lost some of its energy and ideas. A succession of failed collaborations, dropped singles and the departure of founding member Eric Judy during a whopping 7 year hiatus only seemed to confirm this suspicion.
The good news (for people who love good news), is that Strangers to Ourselves is far from the crushing disappointment some feared and in many places serves as a reminder of why Modest Mouse remain at the forefront of indie/alternative rock. The theme is a familiar one, environmental destruction as symptomatic of broader human frailty. As a result of becoming estranged with the natural world around us, we become estranged to ourselves and vice versa. Brock’s unique treatment of this issue, expressed in his intricate, inimitable lyrics and diverse, expressive delivery means this is never a topic which grows dull, Brock’s vocals remaining pivotal to the band’s unique sound.
Strangers to Ourselves and Of Course We Know serve as contemplative bookends which reinforce the album’s overall concept, with Brock singing pretty but purposefully against a backdrop of weighty strings and sparse guitar licks. ‘Lampshades on Fire’, followed by ‘Shit in Your Cut’, ignites the album into the urgent, rhythmic groove of despair and anger for which Modest Mouse are so well known. Drums roll, guitars whine with trademark harmonic bends. So far so good. Together with the more tender, well-executed pop/ballads, ‘Coyotes’ and ‘Ansel’ (the latter a moving track written about Brock’s late brother) the album hints at having the potential to reach the epic heights of which MM are more than capable of.
However, the bad news (for people who love bad news), is that Strangers to Ourselves never really makes it there. Although the experimentation is intriguing and shows there are still new areas for Modest Mouse to venture into, tracks such as ‘Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL.1996)’, which is intended to be dark and dangerous but just ends up being irritating, and ‘God is an Indian and You’re an Asshole’, just seem extraneous and interrupting to the flow of the album. Tracks such as ‘The Ground Walks with Time in a Box, Be Brave’ and ‘The Best Room’, meander into all sorts of absorbing places, moving from apocalyptic crescendos of crashing symbols and punchy guitar to plaintive refrains of layered vocals and roving bass. However, other tracks which appear to have equal potential are either smothered by heavy or unnecessary instrumentation (‘Sugar Boats’) or peter out without leaving a mark (‘Wicked Campaign’, ‘The Tortoise and the Tourist’).
Although occasionally frustrating and with a tendency to drag in places, Strangers to Ourselves still has some excellent moments. The reality is that after nearly 20 years, the band have moved on from the rugged spontaneity which characterised their earlier work. They are now an established force in alternative rock, trying to perfect their unique sound with polished production, rather than redevelop it. This isn’t as exciting, but hey they’re still a great band and Strangers to Ourselves does no damage to this well-earned reputation.