There’s a reason why Isaac Brock’s record label imprint is called “Glacial Pace”. It’s been eight years since the release of Modest Mouse’s last album, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, and the band has kept an incredibly low profile in the intervening years. With a new release looking more and more unlikely with each passing month, and the departure of founding bassist Eric Judy, things were looking a bit hopeless for Modest Mouse fans. But just like a glacier, just because progress is slow doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. And now, we finally have a brand new studio effort from the band in the form of Strangers to Ourselves.
After such a wait, it would be easy to expect them to come back sounding like an entirely different band, similar to when they followed up The Moon and Antarctica with the break-out Good News for People Who Love Bad News. But instead of rewriting their rules, Strangers plays things closer to the vest. It doesn’t sound worlds apart from We Were Dead, acting as much more of a lateral movement in their sound than pushing it forward into new realms. But the band does manage to tap back into the introspective and lonely sound of their earlier work, mixing in their trademark jagged guitar lines with their new pop slant. Songs like “The Tortoise and the Tourist” and “The Ground Walks, With Time in a Box” are the best examples of this: blending the more extroverted, bombastic tendencies of the band’s latest output with the lonely guitar shrieks and philosophical lyricism of the old only serves to reinvigorate the band. “Shit in Your Cut” also recalls some of the most downtrodden moments of the band’s classic The Lonesome Crowded West, pleading to not be left alone, yet sounding frustrated and defeated about it at the same time.
Strangers to Ourselves in fact features some of Brock’s best lyricism since The Moon and Antarctica. As many other musicians and bands reach their forties, they often choose to detail the struggles of aging and all the fear and pain that comes along with it. But that’s the easy and obvious route, and Brock’s focus has always been on the myriad fears and pains of existence anyway. If anything, Strangers to Ourselves is a much more outward-looking album, more often choosing to focus on the ‘we’ than the ‘I’. Sometimes speaking in generalities like on “Be Brave”, or using a children’s story-styled set up to discuss man’s lack of values on “The Tortoise and the Tourist”, or even inserting himself into the shoes of a serial killer on “Pistol”, Strangers is incredibly varied lyrically.
But the lyrics aren’t the only thing that’s varied here on Strangers. Throughout it’s 15 track length, the band jumps back and forth through a variety of sounds – between gentle melody and moody introspection like on the title track and “Shit in Your Cut”, the bombastic, almost carnival-esque energy on “Sugar Boats”, the funky romp of “Pistol”, and even the downright hoedown of “God is an Indian, and You’re an Asshole”. That’s good and bad, because while it’s great that the band is still experimenting with new sounds and moods, it also damages the flow of Strangers as an album. “God is an Indian…” is nothing but jarring when sandwiched between “Be Brave” and “The Tortoise and the Tourist”, and the energetic “The Best Room” jumps right into the funereal, reflective closer “Of Course We Know”. Modest Mouse have almost always been guilty of overstuffing their albums and taking wild detours, but Strangers to Ourselves ends up feeling a little more like a collection of songs than a cohesive album compared to their past work. Given the expanse of time between We Were Dead… and Strangers to Ourselves, though, it’s not surprising that a group of songs written across eight years sounds disjointed.
But flow aside, Strangers is still a refreshing late-career effort, brimming with the energy of a band ten years younger. Instead of looking solely inwards as they get older, their worldview has expanded, and so has their sound. By the act of combining the sounds that cemented their legacy with the pop sensibilities that landed them one of the biggest hits of the 2000s, they’ve created an album that can bridge the gap between old fans and new. Modest Mouse could have easily phoned this album in for a quick infusion of cash and an excuse to tour. Instead, they’re still writing vital, energetic music that respects their roots. They might not be recording genre-defining classics like The Lonesome Crowded West anymore, but they still stand alone as a band that sounds like no one else but themselves, and still have something to say. And the best part? Brock has promised that the next one won’t take eight years.
KEY TRACKS: The Ground Walks with Time in a Box, Sugar Boats, The Tortoise and the Tourist, Pups to Dust