Despite the chaos and the lull, Strangers to Ourselves manages to piece together the classic Modest Mouse sound with tidbits of experimentation one would hope for after such a layoff.
Modest Mouse’s music is at its best when it is jarring, even unsettling. It’s a distinct sound characterized by rough, angular edges and schizo vocals that in one moment can be soothing and seconds later violent. Though the band’s most recent LP, 2007’s We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, reached the top of the charts, it felt more like a smooth, straight line as opposed to a zigzag of electricity. That translates to a more focused effort for most, but Modest Mouse thrives by skipping its Ritalin dose.
Since that release, the turmoil and false starts for a follow-up seemed to indicate that Modest Mouse’s plateau might have been more than just a band running on fumes after 20 years. A handful of outside producers were brought in, collaborations with Big Boi and Krist Novoselic ended up scrapped, and, most notably, founding bassist Eric Judy left the band in 2012. Several promised release dates came and went, and before all was said and done, eight years went by. Though the band was never more commercially successful, it seemed the pressure to follow up the massive success of 2004’s Good News for People Who Love Bad News might have been too much.
Somehow, despite the chaos and the lull, Strangers to Ourselves manages to piece together the classic Modest Mouse sound with tidbits of experimentation one would hope for after such a layoff. Strangers will sound quite familiar, and with all the time that has passed, that’s a good thing. “Shit in Your Cut” has the isolated feel of The Lonesome Crowded West, only more polished and with more depth, showcasing Isaac Brock as one of the most underrated, distinct and inventive guitar players out there with a topographical guitar passage that only he can create. That playing is instantly recognizable during “The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box,” as he sings in parallel with a riff that’s simultaneously funky and punishing. Backed by atmospheric keyboards and a robotic Talking Heads vocal break, it’s the longest, jammiest track here, concluding with distorted harmonics that transition into an almost Middle Eastern coda. Yet, it’s the circus-like “Sugar Boats” that stands out as the most epically Modest Mouse tune. With an abrasive riff, background horns and Brock sounding comfortingly sinister and unstable, it wouldn’t be hard to picture Tom Waits repurposing the tune.
Though Modest Mouse will never be considered a tender band, they’ve proven they can pull off gentle, and on Strangers they’ve perfected it. The title track has a slow heartbeat thump and orchestral arrangement, yet layers of guitar octaves, drum breaks, Brock’s jagged trills and ambient textures make it clear it’s not that big of a leap (the line, “We didn’t realize we’d be stuck in traffic” may also be a little self-depreciating humor at the record’s delay). “Coyotes” is the standout here, though. A gorgeous, soft waltz, Brock’s “Blackbird”-esque acoustic fingering and angular chords during the chorus feel as natural as a warm breeze.
Just because Modest Mouse deliver their strengths doesn’t mean they’ve settled into a comfort zone. With a steady dance beat, “Lampshades on Fire” is made for radio, while the calypso-flavored “Ansel” is as heartfelt and revelatory as anything Brock has done. Detailing a trip to Mexico that marked the last time he saw his brother, Brock sings, “I made a mess of myself, then the trip on the whole/ My father stayed patient with me, why I don’t know.” “Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996),” named for the man that murdered Gianni Versace, is weird even by Modest Mouse standards, mixing electronic, almost industrial sounds with a silliness that borders on Ween territory. Brock conveys untouchable drug-lord arrogance as he announces, “I’ve got my cocaine in the glove box/ The sunroof is down, oh wow.”
This being Modest Mouse, not everything clicks, of course. Inconsistency is a band trademark, even on their finest work, and Strangers is no exception. In reality, there’s just too much here. The excellently titled “God Is an Indian and You’re an Asshole” is essentially just filler, and by the time you get to an excellent track like “The Best Room,” you’re exhausted. Excess is an ironic issue for a band that struggled to cobble together enough material for a proper release. But playing it safe has never worked for Modest Mouse.