Strangers to Ourselves
(Epic/Glacial Pace; 2015)
By Corey Beasley | 23 March 2015
Being a Modest Mouse fan these days is a lot like being Walter Mondale in 1984: you’re always playing defense. The amount of prevaricating and qualifying that comes in any conversation about the band—“Oh, nothing after Moon”—makes it seem as if Isaac Brock’s songcraft fell off a cliff after his (second) masterpiece, The Moon & Antarctica (2001), a unprecedented drop in quality that sent fans and critics running like cockroaches in the bright light of the band’s post-“Float On” success. It’s a bizarre state of affairs, second only to the refusal of The Hague to try the Red Hot Chili Peppers for crimes against humanity in terms of inexplicable phenomena in modern rock history. Good News for People Who Love Bad News (2004) and, yes, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank (2007) are incredible records, on par with almost any guitar albums of the 2000s, whatever their initial, deflated critical reception in the shadow of the band’s peerless ‘90s output. Yes, the production on both records is reprehensible, all overly compressed shine and slick studio gloss, but the highlights on Good News and We Were Dead—“The World at Large,” “Float On,” “Satin in a Coffin,” “March Into the Sea,” “People As Places As People,” “Spitting Venom,” and plenty of others—hold their own against any of the myriad classics in Modest Mouse’s singular career.
So it goes for Strangers to Ourselves, an album unlikely to spearhead a renaissance of love for Isaac Brock and his band, whatever its rock-solid highpoints. On first listen, Strangers seems obviously Modest Mouse’s worst record; really, it’s just the band’s most subtle. Rather than reinvent his band’s sound, as one might not unreasonably expect after a seven year absence, Brock is content to refine Modest Mouse’s late-period, pop-oriented agenda here. The results, by and large, are wonderful. Yes, there are duds beyond saving: the opening title track and closer “Of Course We Know” attempt to recreate the quiet majesty of older cuts like “Workin’ on Leavin’ the Livin’” and “Willful Suspension of Disbelief,” songs that swap out Brock’s trademark spittle-flecked howl for the zoned-out zen of repetition, touches of drone, and legitimately beautiful singing. (Brock’s voice, as ever, remains Modest Mouse’s sharpest weapon, an unparalleled and by now iconic instrument of expression.) Unfortunately, neither “Strangers to Ourselves” or “Of Course We Know” have the expansive, space-age riffs of “Workin’ on Leavin’ the Livin’” or the intuitive, stoner groove of “Willful Suspension of Disbelief,” and both tracks float by without leaving much of a mark.
That politeness is the polar opposite of the most aggressively divisive song here, “Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996),” a seethingly ugly hodgepodge of electronic percussion, Brock’s singsong rapping, and elementary innuendo that seems designed to send anyone with good taste heading for the hills. However, once you start to take “Pistol” on those terms—an almost disgustingly dissonant one-off experiment with the readily apparent goal of making listeners cringe and ask, as Brock does in the song, “…What?”—it becomes gleefully unhinged in a way a Modest Mouse song hasn’t felt since “Dog Paddle” twenty years ago. You might skip it more often than not when returning to the album, but that’s not because it fails in its intentions.
But those tracks are outliers here. The majority of Strangers to Ourselves—its midsection, in an odd misstep of sequencing—matches almost any stretch in the band’s discography over the past decade. That’s a backhanded compliment, as it disqualifies The Moon & Antarctica from debate, but the gentle grandeur of “Coyotes” or the whacked out, “bye bye!” climax of “Sugar Boats” (wherein Brock finally achieves his Waits-ian dreams) belong closer to that conversation than they’re likely to get. Take “Ansel”: for Brock, a guitar hero rightly known for his wiry, snaking leads, his work here is unassuming—almost stately in its reserve. His riff’s simple chord changes gain force with each repetition, like a hypnotist’s coin on a chain, pulling your attention into their arc until—before you know it—you’ve entered the trance that our best pop music can conjure up for us, enrapturing without ever showing off. By the time Brock’s vocals shift into a high harmony in the song’s final moments, he’s written one of the best anthems of his career. “Ansel”’s lyrics function on a similar process of accrual, with Brock spinning a story about a lost brother and slowly adding to the song’s refrain of “Can you ever really know? / Naw, you can’t know”; in its final moments, he reveals what you can’t know: “the last time that you’ll ever see another soul.” It’s a surprisingly poignant climax, and one that sees Brock back to treating his best subject, how little control we actually have over our own lives within an amoral universe utterly unmoved by our desires.
And if you’re looking for Brock to get back to more of that “Stars Are Projectors” philosophizing, Strangers should suit you just fine. “Pups to Dust” wonders why “we don’t remember / just how we got here” over dueling “Dramamine”-style riffs, a swirling heartache of a song that ranks as one of Brock’s best ballads, period. (“The way we feel about what we do / is by who has watched us,” he sings, further evidence he can still pen a one-liner with the best of them, twenty years and counting.) “The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box” gives fans their fix of Modest Mouse in patented disco-punk form, while climate change amps up Brock’s existential woes. He lisps and croons and barks his way through images of mankind partying while “the ghosts of trees are coming out,” his own band providing the uneasy soundtrack, ready for its motion-sick closeup on the dance floor. In “The Tortoise and the Tourist,” Brock writes his own fable about a tortoise, entrusted with the secrets of the universe, killed by a human for its jewel-encrusted shell—silly stuff, to be sure, but it’s nice to have him back in acid-trip mode for old time’s sake, and his throat-searing chorus gets the blood moving. And “Wicked Campaign” chalks up those who’d decry the wickedness of the world to an innate human need for self-victimization, a narcissistic belief that we are at the center of things, especially when things fall apart. The track delights in the textures of Brock’s voice, all snarled baritone shapeshifting into his warbling upper register, building like “Ansel” to a climax all the more rousing for not completely unloosing its well-wrought tension.
As ever with Modest Mouse, these are heady topics for what are essentially user-friendly, pop-rock songs. Brock’s ambition hasn’t waned since the days he wore it on his sleeve with sprawling epics like Moon & Antarctica and the just-as-classic The Lonesome Crowded West (1997)—and, crucially, neither has his ability to match his lofty critiques with top-quality songwriting. “The Best Room,” likely the standout on Strangers to Ourselves, crams everything that makes Modest Mouse one of America’s finest rock bands of all time into a few minutes of bizarre, instantly catchy, redneck iconoclast pop. The bridge soars on gorgeous guitars, Brock yelps and heaves about mankind’s place in the universe (“we’re the sexiest of all primates!”), his rhythm section lurches and bounces, and the whole composition hinges on an almost impossibly emotive, wrenching hook: “Ain’t it hard,” Brock sings with all the force in his miraculous, hideous, exquisite voice, the bulging veins in his neck practically visible from here, “feeling tired / every time / that you try?” It certainly is, but bless him, Isaac Brock is still going.