Over the past two decades, Modest Mouse has controlled the indie rock genre with monumental albums that have defined and altered the world of music. They are easily regarded as one of the best modern rock bands, and they are more than deserving of that recognition. However, the eight-year hiatus between records may have proven itself to be simply too long for the Washington rockers. Instead of returning triumphantly, they return with their most misguided, careless, and downright laziest work to date. Strangers to Ourselves won’t reignite Modest Mouse’s career, garner new interest, or leave their longtime fans feeling satisfied; in fact, it’s a very long awaited disappointment with very little to indulge in.
The most obvious downturn and disappointment is the lack of clever and witty lyricism from Isaac Brock. The man who wrote such evocative and timeless songs, such as “3rd Planet” or “Dark Center of the Universe,” seems to have hit a dead end. Half of the album’s messages or meanings are either extremely vague or way too easy. In the lead single, “Lampshades on Fire,” the guitars and beat recall earlier songs like “Dashboard” or “Dance Hall,” but the eye-rolling lyrics make the song not enjoyable. “We have spines in our bones / We’ll eat your food, we’ll throw stones / Oh, this is how it’s always gone / And this is how it’s goin’ to go.” The last two lines happen far too often throughout Strangers to Ourselves, where Brock simply says things in a dull, lifeless, matter-of-fact way, without anything fresh to latch onto.
“Strangers to Ourselves,” the melancholy opening and title track, sum up the entire album, but not in a good way. Brock sings, “How often we are confused / How honestly we have tried / But we’ll forget / We have designed more unusual things as yet.” In fact, maybe Brock understands that Strangers to Ourselves is their most trivial and uninspired album thus far. The entire album feels confused, detached, impersonal, and directionless. Brock’s vocals, too, sound insufficient and forced, as if he’s trying to sound like his old self without any of the sentiment behind it.
Even the songs that are obviously supposed to have some emotion or purpose behind them fall flat. “Ansel” is a song about the death of Brock’s brother back in the early 2000s, but the song is muddled by obscurities and a poorly executed rhythm. “Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, Fl. 1996)” is about a serial killer, who murdered Gianni Versace; however, the track is a terribly cartoonish rip-off of Modest Mouse’s quirky side. In fact, it sounds like Twenty-One Pilots or some bad electro-rock group tried to cover “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes.”
In fact, most of the album feels like a hollow shell of what Modest Mouse was and what they’re truly capable of pulling off. In a sense, they are mimicking their former sound, and not capitalizing on why we have grown to love them. “Coyotes” feels like a lackluster rendition of “Blame It on the Tetons,” as it doesn’t go anywhere nor does it carry any impact. “The Tortoise and the Tourist” features some nice bendy and whiny guitars, but the song feels like it’s trying to come off as profound without a story or heart in it. “Be Brave” may, in fact, be one of the most convoluted songs Modest Mouse has created to date. The first half is ridiculously repetitive and is oddly annoying. It feels like three separate songs were squeezed together, and it doesn’t work at all.
To point towards some positivity, there are a few times on the almost-hour-long record where things seem to click. “The Ground Walks, With Time in a Box” features a wonderfully pleasant and charming guitar line accompanied by harmonious horns. It’s fresh, feels like a newly envisioned and reworked track that stays true to who they are, while testing new grounds. The backup vocals, with some interesting production choices as they seem to swoop in and out, remind us that Modest Mouse are still capable of creating invigorating and enticing work.
“Pups to Dust” also features some of Brock’s snarky lyrics. “I don’t lie very often, but I lie very well / Give it away, take what you need / Love does not cost money, but it ain’t free.” The song also carries with it some progression and a hint of a direction. “Sugar Boats” may be the shining gem on Strangers to Ourselves. The circus-y feel with the rambunctious and quirky musical breakdowns is a nod to what Modest Mouse is great at. Brock’s lyrics find some solid ground yet again here, when he yells out, “This heart of mine is just some sort of map / That doesn’t care at all or worry about where the hell you’re at / But you’re right there!”
Although “The Best Room” has an obvious message and contains some curious lyrics, it’s another track that bores before it even ends. Throughout Strangers to Ourselves, it’s evident that the amount of time it took for Modest Mouse to record and finally release their sixth studio album took its toll. It’s like they left a meaty and expensive filet mignon out to thaw, and they simply forgot about it. The amount of time may have forced them to overwork, overthink, and over-edit their latest release. In full, Strangers to Ourselves isn’t necessarily a “bad” album; however, it is an inadequate and monotonous work created by a band that we know has so much more to offer.