It feels like Modest Mouse have been away forever, so it’s easy to forget that their decline into mediocrity is only one or two albums deep. (If you think The Moon & Antarctica is less than a masterpiece, you’re reading the wrong review.) Whether they fell off one or two albums ago depends on how you feel about 2004 breakthrough Good News For People Who Love Bad News. That one was more maddeningly inconsistent than the band’s previous LPs, but like all Modest Mouse records up to that point, it contained plentiful bursts of inspiration and inspired fierce devotion among the faithful. Not until 2007’s We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank was I wondering how these feral trailer-park mystics ended up sounding so domesticated and unrelentingly safe. Even that monument to gentrification had its charms — and upon revisitation this week, it’s even better than I remember — but by that point Modest Mouse no longer felt like one of the most vital bands in rock. They had lost a step.
Eight years later, they’re finally back with a new album. Is it time to get excited again? If you’re a ’90s Modest Mouse loyalist, probably not. That band is not coming back. Strangers To Ourselves is a new-millennial, major-label Modest Mouse record to its core: driven by studio craft as much as ferocious melancholy, fierce but not raw, its sprawl more akin to an ugly skyline than an endless mountain highway. It’s still unmistakably Modest Mouse, though, from the thunderous junkyard drums to the ghostly guitar figures to Isaac Brock’s wild rhythmic bark. Like any Modest Mouse album, it’s a weird world to get lost in, and there are some corners best left unexplored. But if you have any fondness for Good News or even The Moon & Antarctica, you’ll discover plenty here to appreciate. I’d call it their SYRO — comfort food for longtime fans that occasionally scrapes the heights of old — except people lost their minds over SYRO, and I can’t imagine people convulsing at this record in glee or anger.
We begin with the title track, a waking-up keyboard drone dressed with violin, shambolic drums, and minimal guitar. It’s good, though in the grand tradition of Modest Mouse album openers, it feels unceremonious. Things pick up significantly with “Lampshades On Fire,” a lead single that feels like every Modest Mouse record to date rolled into one song with bonus choir. The resulting tune is firmly entrenched in the band’s Whole Foods-backyard-BBQ era, but it does that era proud. Upward momentum continues with “Shit In Your Cut”; the album’s early peak, it’s a stomping power ballad haunted by a snarling heavy metal pentatonic riff. It makes me want to hear an entire album’s worth of Sabbath Mouse.
By that point you might find yourself thinking Strangers To Ourselves is the first classic Modest Mouse album in years. It’s not, as the serial killer story “Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996)” quickly demonstrates. The experimentation is commendable — squelching electrified bass and programmed beats plus banjo, topped off with Brock’s voice screwed to a demonic pitch — but the results are as obnoxious the description implies. There are other unbearable moments sprinkled throughout, particularly “Sugar Boats,” which poisons some awesome guitar work and a graceful Brock vocal melody with a godforsaken blend of circus stomp and saloon piano. It’s yet another reminder that the rootsy, swampy, backwoods sound was the worst thing that ever happened to Modest Mouse. The brightest highlights of Modest Mouse’s career were far from metropolitan, but there’s a big difference between the disaffected mountain-kid drug trips of their early days and the jug-band malarkey that renders them a cartoon. Give me gleaming radio singles over that Ugly Casanova bullshit any day.
Far better are the Moon & Antarctica throwbacks, including the arpeggiated disco-punk epic “The Ground Walks, With Time In A Box” and the hallucinatory interlude “God Is An Indian And You’re An Asshole.” Plenty of other deep cuts will reveal themselves on any given listen, including the ’80s art-pop curio “Wicked Campaign,” the steel drum-inflected road-trip story “Ansel,” the harrumphing/sighing guitar throwdown “The Best Room,” and the gargantuan howler “Be Brave.” And if an expertly arranged ballad like “Coyotes” feels a little saccharine to you, even middle-aged punks who haven’t paid Modest Mouse any mind in well over a decade might be moved by the monstrous “The Tortoise And The Tourist.”
The best Modest Mouse albums are epic; the rest are just long. By the time “Of Course We Know” rolls around, cavernous and triumphantly downcast closer though it may be, Strangers To Ourselves is clearly the latter. Brock is still spinning grotesque character portraits, seething in frustration, and peering into heaven at strange angles. The music is still a unique amalgam of sounds culled from the trash heap (albeit a trash heap in a wealthier neighborhood). They’re still capable of eliciting tingles when the stars align. Yet despite skipping liberally across aesthetics, the record lacks the sense of adventure and sweeping momentum that marked Modest Mouse’s best work, and it somehow ends up less than the sum of its parts. Even so, at least some of those parts will resonate with you if you’ve ever loved this band. For an album about not recognizing yourself, it’s mighty familiar, for better or worse.
Strangers To Ourselves is out 3/17 on Epic.