Although they weren’t exactly prolific before, the eight years it has taken Modest Mouse to release their sixth studio album is twice as long as any earlier hiatus in their 20-year-plus existence. All the more curious as 2007’s We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank topped the Billboard Hot 100, so the band can hardly be accused of cashing in on their success. Having slowly but surely developed from cult indie band to major-label platinum-seller without losing their quirky character, it seems they didn’t know what direction to pursue. The title of Strangers To Ourselves perhaps reflects this uncertainty.
There hasn’t been a complete silence: the 2009 EP No Ones’s First And You’re Next was a compilation of B-sides and outtakes from the previous two albums, while singer/songwriter Isaac Brock has a composed a couple of film scores, and the band has played live. But there seems to have been a bit of a creative crisis. The moving on of freelance gunslinger Johnny Marr after We Were Dead… was not surprising, but the more recent departure of founder member Eric Judy signalled all was not well, as did the multiple changing of co-producers and the cancellation of the band’s 2013 European tour because recording wasn’t going according to plan.
Fans will be relieved that after such a protracted labour Strangers To Ourselves has emerged in surprisingly good shape, even if it lacks the robust conviction of Modest Mouse’s best work. There has been no attempt to smoothen out the idiosyncrasies that make them distinctive, and though this album’s patchwork quilt of musical textures may sometimes be uneven there is much that intrigues. Once again they have weighed in with a whopper (three of their albums last over an hour!), with this one running for about 57 minutes and boasting 15 tracks.
Prime mover Brock’s characteristically opaque, metaphor-driven lyrics sound more confused and confusing than usual, but his vocal performance retains its edgy intensity, while replacement members guitarist Jim Fairchild and bassist Russell Higbee, plus new viola player/keyboardist Lisa Molinaro, join the others in making a significant contribution to what has never been a one-man band.
The title track’s muted singing, melancholic strings and off-kilter guitar chords conveying forgetfulness and regret open the album in decidedly minor key. The high-voltage lead single Lampshades on Fire raises the tempo considerably with its catchy reggae groove even if the lyrics are far from upbeat, in their pessimistic account of our causal exploitation of developing countries and reckless waste of the earth’s resources: “Well, we’re the human race / We’re goin’ to party out of this place / And then move on.” But the clumsily misfiring Pistol sheds little light on the motivation of spree killer Andrew Cunanan.
Steel drums give Ansel a colourful Caribbean vibe, while the jerky disco rhythms of The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box are instantly foot twitching. The hauntingly beautiful Coyotes contains the arresting image of “At home with the ghosts in the national parks / Coyotes tiptoe in the snow after dark” and Sugar Boats’ fairground-like jaunty air is pretty irresistible. Be Brave is a rousing rallying call, while the nervy vocals and syncopated percussion of The Best Room reinforce the expression of 21st-century Western angst that also seems to inform the album as a whole.
Apparently the band recorded two albums’ worth of material when making Strangers To Ourselves, so we shouldn’t have to wait anything like as long for the next instalment of the offbeat Modest Mouse story.