Isaac Brock has spent the past eight years sputtering in the wilderness of his creative mind crafting Modest Mouse’s sixth album, Strangers To Ourselves.
The title track slips in casually with the opening seconds. Brock’s depleted quivering lisp mixes in with strings in a swirl and brushes on the snare. It’s a slow-rocking somber opening, but the second song and first single, “Lampshades On Fire” kicks the mood up into the sky.
In its three-minute presence the perfect recipe is heard from a band that’s been cooking since 1993 when they formed in their native state Washington. There’s the hearty drum beat, Brock’s spittle on the microphone and harmonic guitar squalls that poke from the rush of movement. In 2015, one could call this the classic Modest Mouse sound.
Strangers to Ourselves is the group’s first with the absence of bass player and founding member Eric Judy. The album is the follow-up to 2007’s We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, a mostly uneven set of songs, that fell from the aftermath of “Float On,” the single that catapulted them into new heights. It was 2004 and suddenly everyone and their mothers were singing “Float On” and “Hey Ya” by Outkast on the way to school.
Nearly every song on Strangers To Ourselves is busy, working like a village of tiny lemmings and packed front to end with full instrumentation. The band’s earlier records had more space to breathe, while their more recent releases jerk the listener around.
On “Sugar Boats” we hear an oddball chunk of New Orleans funk with horns dodging Brock’s wound-up guitar. “Shit In Your Cut” is weighed down by a chunky drumbeat and a bassline that teeters left to right. Brock’s vocals fall into his lower register, monotone and spectral, for the haunting chorus, “I guess we’ll ride this winter out.” The song slips away like the sunlight on a winter day.
On “Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miama, FL 1996)” Brock sounds like your drunk uncle talking at you after downing a bottle of cough syrup. It’s a froggy demented party-time track. “The Ground Walks, With Time In A Box” locks into a Modest Mouse groove with guitar sparkling at the edges. The hi-hat hits consistently on the offbeat through a wavy, woozy chorus that spins around from ear to ear. The songs stumbles into an avalanche of guitar crunch and harmonic flurries before leveling off in the wake of quaking horns and glass bottle tops.
The album’s best song is “Coyotes.” Its simple acoustic strum leads the way as Brock addresses the disappointment of what it means to be human. He suspends his drunken bard’s croak to whisper warily on the wind, “Mankind’s behaving like some serial killers.” Not only the best here, but since anything off The Moon & Antarctica.
Strangers To Ourselves is a good time, and better as their last, but it fails to make much of a lasting impression after an eight-year wait. Modest Mouse is still one of the great live acts of the current day, but on their sixth album they only cements their formula further.