Modest Mouse fans have had a long agonizing wait for new material. It has been eight long years since the extraordinary album We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank was released in 2007. Wait no longer Modest Mouse fans, on March 17, their sixth album Strangers to Ourselves is hitting the shelves and downloading facilitators everywhere. Over the last two months as a tease the band has released five songs from the album. With 15 new tracks, there is a nice amount of music to absorb.
Strangers to Ourselves takes up where “We Were Dead…” left off, but like every Modest Mouse release it feels like a new chapter in the band’s career. Isaac Brock storied songwriter and lead singer stated about the long lapse between the albums, “that writing songs for albums is definitely not a race. I’m not dying to put out a record; I’m kinda waiting for the record to show up.” Brock also stated that the recent musical environment did not feel conducive to the band’s style. “The music business is a wreck and I was busy beekeeping and getting back to basics.” Brock stated that if there is a working theme for “Strangers to Ourselves”… it is the failures of modern society.” The cover artwork of the album underlines the theme with its satellite view of a RV park in Mesa, Arizona emphasizing that humans are tiny in the scope of things.
In the eight years that the band was on hiatus, personnel changes have taken place. Eric Judy core member and bassist left the band in 2012. The stellar Johnny Marr went on to form another band and kick off his successful solo career. The remaining core members Isaac Brock on guitars and vocals and Jeremiah Green returning on drums, are joined by Russell Higbee replacing Judy on bass, Tom Peloso on upright bass, keyboards, trumpet and fiddle, Lisa Molinaro on Viola and keyboards and Jim Fairchild on guitar and vocals. The release was produced by Brian Deck.
Modest Mouse has always been renowned for their juicy snarling social commentary and singular sound and this release does not disappoint. It is a wry combination of the anarchic spirals of earlier works woven with neat well rounded pop resulting in songs that are all so palatable. The sound is their own original mixture of punk, grunge, and signature guitar which makes for a fine alchemy. The title track Strangers to Ourselves opens with a slow Native American drum beat and great viola. It is a dreamy, hypnotic drifting song that eases you into the release. With the lyric “We’re lucky we are so capable to forget” conveying the message of the track; we are doomed to make the same mistakes that we long ago should have learned to avoid. The song excellently segues from “We Were Dead….” into this album’s new territory.
Lampshades on Fire was the first pre release song from the album. It can be easily placed somewhere in the song hierarchy of We Got Everything and People as Places as People off of “We Were Dead…” The song is hook laden and accessible. That being said the message again is we are messing it all up. Brock in explaining the song stated “All you need is a window and a newspaper to realize we are doing it all wrong.”
Shit in Your Cut has a cool intro and fantastic percussion permeates the song. It is classic Modest Mouse with a twist, using an oscillating beat twinned with a great guitar. The protagonist of the song begs the listener’s pardon because he is going to be a buzzkill and point out the reality of what is going on in the world and not sugar coating it for easy consumption. Pistol is a song I imagine could kick up a kerfuffle. The song appears to be about the toxic environment of Miami or the world in general in 1996. The song seems to be inferring a connection between serial killer Andrew Cunanan, who went on a drug fueled killing spree in the 96/97 eventually killing Gianni Versace and four others before killing himself, with that environment. The track sounds like pulled around hip hop funk with 1980’s electronic drums, I liken it to early Beck.
Ansel is a mid tempo rocker where Brock sings about seizing the day with the ones you love, because no one knows when it is your last time to appreciate them. There is also the query of wondering if you would truly want to know when you’re going to die. The Ground Walks with Time in a Box is the longest song on the release opening with a long guitar intro and harkens to the sound off of “We Were Dead…”. The song has a pop feel with the recognizable signature guitar chords the band had made famous. Again Brock’s excellent word smithery comes to the surface. The end of the song channels some early “This is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About” with an added pinch of maturity toss into the mix. The marimba play on the track is also a feature.
The song Coyotes was the second pre released song off the album. It is a heartfelt song questioning mankind’s responsibility to nature. The simplicity of the song and waltz like tempo make it a something that will stick with you. The wry lyrics underpin the power of the song, “Mankind behaves like some serial killer.” It is direct and to the point. Pups to Dust could have come directly off of Moon and Antarctica and shows the band’s mastery of their craft, it is graceful, volatile and brilliant. Sugar Boats switches things up with a ragtime piano that transports you to the main midway of life’s carnival. The song is cool and trippy as it deals out the thought that “this rock of ours is just some big mistake”. The lyrics go on to further suggest that all of modern society is built on a very shaky foundation with no absolutes. The song is Brock’s observations on the freak show we are all involved in on this spinning rock.
The sound on Wicked Campaign is a real departure from anything Modest Mouse has done before. The song starts out with this glitchy intro, and then proceeds with some really smooth production. I was on the fence initially about the song, but with repeated listens came to like it, it is a grower. It addresses the hard sell of marketing in general and politics more specifically. Brock points out that materialism lulls society into inaction about things that should demand our attention. “Be Brave” returns to more familiar ground with Brock almost approaching sloganeering to encourage the listener to hold on and advance into the gap yet again to fight valiantly.
Due to FCC regs. God is an Indian and Your and Asshole will certainly not make it onto any American radio stations, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a great song. I have always loved Brock’s song titles; they have stood shoulder to shoulder with The Smiths and Morrissey in awesome aptness. The track is short to the point. This is a great protest folk song that I predict will be very popular in concert.
Watch the video for “Lampshades on Fire” below:
The Tortoise and the Tourist is the “do not miss song” of the album. It is Modest Mouse distilled down to the essence of all their awesome goodness. All the boxes get checked off. It is hypnotic, trippy jam out that the band has always been famous for performing. If you want to understand what Modest Mouse is about go no farther than this song, it is essential Modest Mouse. The Tortoise and the Tourist is spellbinding music with amazing lyrics making for a quintessential Modest Mouse song.
The song The Best Room has made some noise because the press picked up that Brock’s discussing seeing an UFO in Arizona back in the 90’s in the song. Don’t let that tidbit distract you from the rest of the track, it is a commentary on society and all of its contradictions, “The best room they got is the last one you want.” It also discusses the daily fight against the garbage of everyday living, having to sift through the trash to find the nuggets of gold in life. “Ain’t it hard feeling tired all the time?” is the apt refrain to the ennui of life.
The final song Of Course We Know unfurls across a large aural soundscape. It is a cathedral of a song with swirling vocals and guitar. It is very trippy with an ethereal vibe. Brock contradicts the title of the song, making the point that when we get to the end of all our pondering, we simply don’t know what happens when we leave this life. None of us have the answers to questions that haunt us for a lifetime. It is a moving song and interesting choice as the last song on the disc.
Strangers to Ourselves is an album that is a worthy entry to the discography of Modest Mouse. Like a Lego piece clicking into place. Considering the loaded expectations attached to the release that is not such an easy accomplishment. It certainly satisfies the itch that long time fans of Modest Mouse had for new original content. There is not a clinker in the bunch and fans should rejoice at its arrival. The album is filled with complexity and beauty which will entice listeners to come back time and time again as different lyrics and images latch on to the imagination. Strangers to Ourselves also gives the new listener a place to gain a toe hold in appreciating the stellar output of the band. Once again the band has enmeshed their legendary sound with something new, different and original. It is so good I could almost forgive Brock and Co. for the long wait.