Modest Mouse: Strangers To Ourselves

The indie legends return, has time away helped resolve the artistic tensions at the core of the band?

- Of all of the bands to make the switch from indie-label darlings to major-label heavyweights, Modest Mouse must be one of the most unlikely. Albums like Lonesome Crowded West and This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About may be epic, life-questioning slabs of indie-pop but they’re also twisted, elongated (both albums clock in at 74minutes length) and decidedly weird records. Head Mouse Isaac Brock is the owner of a gravelly, cracked lisp of a voice; a bendy, obtuse style of playing guitar; and a dark, genuinely strange sense of songwriting. Hardly the sort of music to attract major-label interest. But then, in 2000, they released The Moon & Antarctica on Epic, an album which is generally regarded as their creative high-water mark. They then followed this up with a commercial hit record in the form of Good News For People Who Love Bad News, which of course featured the gargantuan single ‘Float On’, a song that was virtually inescapable back in 2004.

Strangers To Ourselves is the first new album from Modest Mouse in eight years, following on from 2007’s We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank. That record gave the impression of a band struggling to reconcile two impulses at odds with each other: how to mix the epic, oblique success of their early music with the relatively commercial and accessible form of Good News. We Were Dead had mixed results in that endeavour, featuring arty epics like ‘Spitting Venom’ and ‘Parting Of The Sensory’ alongside radio hits like ‘Dashboard’. In between, though, were perhaps too many songs that failed to make enough of impression on either camp. Strangers feels similarly conflicted, although instead of aiming for hard-hitting musical statements like most songs on We Were Dead it seems to take a more even, somewhat more subtler path.

The opening title track will get fans of Moon & Antarctica’s hopes up, with a lethargic two-chord shuffle underpinning a beautiful string arrangement and bent, atmospheric guitars while Brock muses on familiar lyrical territory of sleeping through modern life. First single ‘Lampshade On Fire’ kicks things up a notch, echoing Good News’ one-two opening punch while providing probably the best pure pop song on the album. From there we get another dose of Antarctica-esque darkness in the form of ‘Shit In Your Cut’ (built around the lyric “I guess we’ll ride this winter out”) before Pistol completely interrupts the flow of the record. Seemingly an attempt at a hard-hitting hip-hop style number, it ruins the momentum that Strangers was building up until that point. If it had been placed later on the record it might have provided a welcome wakeup through the album’s hour-long running time, but coming this early it just ends up throwing the listener for a loop. The album gets back on track a few songs later with the trio of ‘The Ground Walks, With Time In a Box’, ‘Coyotes’ and ‘Pups To Dust’, probably the most engaging stretch on the record. The second half keeps thing on a more consistent, even keel, although it doesn’t contain as many memorable moments as the first. Thankfully closer ‘Of Course We Know’ is probably the most stunning song on the album, an exploration of death and a treat for old-school fans who make it to the end of the record.

Strangers To Ourselves doesn’t make it easy for itself – it’s quite long and its pop moments mostly don’t hit as hard as they did on the previous two records, while its arty moments aren’t as satisfying as they once were. On first listens much of the album passes by without leaving much of an impression. However, it does eventually open itself up to show a record that contains a number of worthwhile moments, if still falling short of previous efforts.

- Cam Smith.

Album Details

Album Title: Strangers To Ourselves
Artist: Modest Mouse
Record Label: (Epic / Sony)