Modest Mouse – Strangers To Ourselves – Album Review
I’ll admit – I got on the Modest Mouse bandwagon fairly late…just at the crest of the release of Good News For People Who Love Bad News; and then ravenously devoured their entire back catalogue. Forever astounded by just how real their music can be; it’s incredible how in the short span of any given record they can tap into the very roots of human emotion and drain that motherfucker dry until you’ve got no tears left, laughed all the laughs and grinned all the grins. I had to take more time to figure out how to say what I wanted to here than I usually do in listening, which to me is always an indication of music with real depth and layers.
It makes me grin because I don’t think that a lot of people could hear Modest Mouse as that kind of band…I think a lot of people wrote them off easily as a noisy, frantic, silly band without listening for the incredible depths they can reach on any given album’s songs surrounding their radio hits. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not immune to hooks & I get caught up in a clever sound just the same as you do – but the idea that those songs DON’T lead to becoming a gateway into the rest of a catalogue is CRAZY to me. Do you know those people too? I can’t be the only one who knows them. You know…that friend that tells you they LOVE the new single from so-and-so but can’t tell you a single damn thing about the artist or music other than the one song? Who ARE these people and how do they function? To me that’s like watching the theme-song & intro of your favourite show and deciding you’d probably love the rest of it to follow but get you probably get enough of the idea and really don’t need to watch.
I digress. Or I rant. Ramble. Or do I?
When I originally started listening to Modest Mouse way back when in like 2000 or 2002-ish area…my early twenties…I was hit with a massive horn-blasting to my ears as they started up their album. On this new album, Strangers To Ourselves, we find a much more mature version of Modest Mouse starting out this album with a slow & beautiful churn in the opening/title-track. It begins a dreamlike sequence to follow…almost like a nursery rhyme for adults that borrows atmosphere from the outer-space like Pink Floyd and the sheer pure pop-melodies of The Beatles. Complete with strings…this already sounds like a tremendously more-focused version of this band that has continually gotten better along their history with each and every album.
Did Modest Mouse sell out? First of all – put away your hack terminology and playground-cool and realize that this band isn’t out to take home the millions – they truly combine music and art in divinely tragic-comedies and have been REFINING (yes that’s right – read: did NOT sell out) their sound for years and years. Lead singer and sound-revolutionary Isaac Brock and his crew have been slowly filtering out the uncontrolled mayhem and carnage of their early work for a firm grip on reckless abandon…the ultimate ability to control what sounds uncontrollable. In particular, with the vocals, he’s been known to ramble & rant just as much if not more so than I do in these reviews; in the past they’ve been the energetic and amped up sound that have been the hook we’ve all latched onto, and here on this album they’ve retained all the qualities we loved but they come out with more confidence, tone and control than I think we’ve seen from Brock and Modest Mouse in the earlier tunes.
Chances are – if you’re a real fan you’re already all over this album. If not the full album, you’ve probably already heard the addictive new single “Lampshades On Fire.” This playful tune mixes the up-tempo and ingenious vocals that have made this band a favourite for millions the world over; it’s a great bridge between the sound of their last album We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank and this new one. With a pop-rock/alternative sound, the ability of Modest Mouse to perfectly slip in vocalizations that might sound silly from anyone else – you know, the NOT-real-words kinda singing parts…it’s just incredible to listen to how convincing the band and vocals can be in these moments. Not just a serious staple of their sound – it’s certainly unique to them; I don’t know of a single band that can make songs as fun as they are tragic like Modest Mouse can.
I’ll put it to you this way…from the perspective of a guy whom has battled manic-depression every day of his life…the music of Modest Mouse can put me on a rollercoaster-ride of emotions that can’t be stopped. When I get right into the music and words…I can easily go from laughter to tears in mere seconds or the single bend of Brock’s tone in his emotionally-powerful delivery. So like I said…I needed a bit of extra time with this one…a box of Kleenex (for catching tears) and some time to myself…
The evolution in sound for the band was certainly an expected one, and in that sense this album didn’t surprise me. But with that being said – the atmosphere’s they created, the unique versatility of this album and the innovation & dedication they’ve put into their sound was both impressive AND surprising. They’ve taken their sound to an immaculate level. Still bringing in elements that conflict & fight with each other in each and every track – the push and pull of Modest Mouse has reached intoxicating levels; like, I’ve never done heroin, but man…I just want to open up a whole dirty blue balloon and drift off when I hear a song like “Shit In Your Cut.” The hazy chorus is like the best drug trip you’ve experienced…whatever that drug may be. This song floats along in a completely haunting and melodic audio-visual combination that really resonates within your ears, mind and soul.
“Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996)” – you already know I’m interested in a title like that, but this song is also one of the most diverse you’ll have ever heard from Modest Mouse. The CLOSEST thing I can compare it to, would be from the Purple One himself, Prince. This song reminds me somewhat of the slow-grind and groove of “Bob George,” on Prince’s completely all-black, unlabelled album. The title itself refers to Andrew Cunanan, a man with an extremely high IQ who found himself deep in the gay culture & community and exploited many of those looking for love on his eventual path to becoming a murderer. He didn’t eat’em like Dahmer did, but the story is a pretty gruesome one. Here in this song, we get a glimpse into what his mindset might have been like; and to accent that whole perspective, Modest Mouse sounds like they never have before here on this cut.
Bringing in the most personal story and straight-ahead tale of his song-writing career, Brock takes “Ansel” to another level entirely. Detailing the events, feelings, emotions and aftermath of the death of his brother Ansel – Modest Mouse has again set another tragic tale, their most severe truly, to a bright and beautiful background. The resulting tale of loss and questioning, regret and personal punishment is massively heartbreaking. As the song collapses into its end…you believe every word that Brock is saying because it’s REAL. As he says “You don’t know, you can’t ever really know” in this song, it becomes a phenomenally powerful line as you realize he’s spared the details because we really couldn’t ever know. Few have experienced such a tragedy even though we all experience loss. Brock telling me that I couldn’t possibly know what he’s felt or experienced is about as heartbreaking of a way as only he could have put it, and that emotion translates with complete clarity.
Breaking out of the extremely personal – the party vibe in “The Ground Walks, With Time In A Box,” is like what we’d hear from Men At Work if they were still kicking ass in the modern day. An excellent throwback groove – this song brings the album into a new light with a switch into a thoroughly positive beat and a switch around the four-and-a-half minute mark that completely rules. Breaking into guitar harmonics and drifting towards the end – this song was a real surprise by the end. Nothing’s ever as simple as it seems with these guys and they prove that again here on “The Ground Walks, With Time In A Box” in a sheer-display of vibrant musical-diversity.
“Coyotes” is another example of the lyrical-genius that exists within the mind of Brock. A song that will truly make you pause and reflect to think about how we look at life through our own lens; can we take the good with the bad? Can the bad be beautiful too? I’ve always said firmly – I don’t LIKE everything; but I do believe there IS something TO like in everything. That doesn’t mean some days can’t suck – some days just plainly do. Do I love the suck? No. No I don’t. But I make no bones about that; this song “Coyotes” is about how we examine life…what we can & can’t accept. It’s a stripped-down tune that allows you the time to think & puts you in the right atmosphere to do it with lyrically-repetitive lines that act as a meditative mantra.
“Pups To Dust” goes on to examine the status of our being here and questioning the universe, as does “Sugar Boats.” On “Pups To Dust,” you get a more defeated atmosphere towards life whereas “Sugar Boats” drops the gloves and gets the fight back on. Brock has been through an incredible journey in life both inside and out of the band…and as public of a life can be as a musician, he’s also managed to live most of it internally. These perspectives, opinions and thoughts laid out here on Strangers To Ourselves are often thoughts and feelings I’ve had myself and can only hope other people out there have too. To hear them voiced like they are, particularly on “Sugar Boats” is comforting…inspiring…uplifting…hopeful.
There is however, no doubt in my mind that they’ve found a huge-hit for themselves on “Wicked Campaign.” Everything from production, to drums, to guitar, to vocal-flow and lyrics – this is not only one of the best on the album, it’s one of the best in the Modest Mouse catalogue. Starting out with a subtle beginning, this song just continually builds and builds upon itself as it plays through. Hitting the lowest notes in his register, Brock comes through in bright melodies throughout the verse before diving deep into the chorus tones. With an outstanding ending that has some exceptional harmonies, you’ve gotta admire these guys for where they’ve come from to where they are now.
“Be Brave” puts a punk-attitude into a post-rock influenced sound before they jump onto their horses and link up to the caravan with “God Is Indian And You’re An Asshole,” a short tune and nod towards the past works of Modest Mouse. Tougher for both of these tunes to stand out in between “Wicked Campaign” and the spiralling guitars that start out “The Tortoise And The Tourist;” they’re both great songs too…but they don’t quite compare to these two surrounding epics. I love the space in “The Tortoise And The Tourist,” it’s a wide-open beat with excellent bass and another incredible ramble/rant, melodic vocal flow from Brock before he freaks out in the chorus. A great combination of the new attitude of the music and the attack of their old sound – this is the Modest Mouse sound at complete refinement right here.
They lighten up in a really fantastic way on “The Best Room.” The grind of this song becomes addictive very quickly…it’s the hook you might not expect on the album for sure. As they descend into switches with intense melodies and breakdowns that completely depend on Brock carrying the weight – this song is a real display of the stuttered aspect between calm & chaos that we all love so much about Modest Mouse. But nearing towards two-minutes and thirty-seconds in, you’ll get a whole new atmosphere once again. Back into dreamland, this song heads back towards a melodically driven middle before launching into the final blast of punk-funked pop-rock.
The final epic, “Of Course We Know” questions not just the ending of life, but the very reason we even begin our journey in the first place. And this is where I needed my Kleenex and tear-catchers. Give me some credit…I made it to the end didn’t I? As Brock climbs into the music, he’s set back a little more distantly in the mix and it’s an incredible effect. Calling out God directly on this song, it’s an interesting concept to think of a creator as being able to surrender themselves to the experience of death like we do eventually. Would that supposed creator ever be able to experience vulnerability and emotions like we could?
The bottom line is this – if the music and words of Modest Mouse haven’t made you stop everything you’re doing to listen and THINK for a minute or two, then you’re clearly listening through the wrong holes of your own damn body and that’s on YOU. There’s incredible personal insight contained in their entire catalogue, but presented here as it is on Strangers To Ourselves certainly marks the sign of a band that has worked out every kink, bug and glitch or found a new exciting way to work them in perfectly. It’s their sound – it always will be. It’s rare that you can say that there will ‘never be another’ such-and-such; but that truly is the case here. There won’t ever be another Modest Mouse; and one of the best qualities of their music has always been the fragile-nature behind it…in a way it sounds like it could break at any moment. On Strangers To Ourselves – they come out with a confidence in behind that fragility in a way that makes you believe the Brock and his amazing crew could continue to make music exciting for decades upon decades to come.
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