Signing to a major label has long been seen as signing a death sentence for your creativity. The artist narrowing their gaze and refining their sound for mass appeal, rather than rather than pushing out and exploring. Modest Mouse proved that rule wrong with their major label debut. 2000's The Moon & Antarctica was their most ambitious album yet, sprawling off in multiple directions and abandoning their lo-fi sound for a number of studio experiments that were no more palatable. Songs obsessed over the afterlife and the cosmos whilst tracks like the grand star-gazing Stars Are Projectors, still one of the bands defining moments, revealed an ambition that could be described as anything but selling out.
Their debut This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About set out lead songwriter Isacc Brock's M.O. of mixing the literate with the emotional delivered with a vocal range that went from a half spoken croon to a Frank Black-style feral yelp whilst the band's sound was defined by limitations of being a three piece recording in small studios. When Good News for People Who Love Bad News came out in 2004 the band made a push towards the mainstream, with cleaner production and a fuller sound. The move paid of for the band as the album went platinum in America, a rare achievement for an indie rock band, spawning big singles like Float On but still kept much of the band's charm intact.
It has been eight years since the last Modest Mouse album We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank's nautical-themed rock and in those intervening years rumours persisted of abandoned recording sessions and collaborations with the likes of Big Boi (apparently this is still going to happen). Despite setbacks and problems, the bands sixth album Strangers To Ourselves has finally emerged and despite the time between releases feels familiar right away.
Strangers To Ourselves certainly isn't short of this bigger catchy moments either, the album's first single Lampshades On Fire seems to strike a similar tone to the bands big singles like Dashboard and Float On with a refrain of ba ba ba's it's not afraid of going after a simple hook to pull you in. The Ground Walks, With Time In A Box will surely be released as a single at some point, scratchy guitar lines scrap against Brock's erratic, tumbling vocals before the track brings in almost Steve Reich xylophone rhythms before ending in a reversed guitar solo. It's an example of the bands willingness to experiment in a studio going right, but unfortunately it's one of the only good examples of it on the album. Elsewhere, there a few too many studio tricks thrown in that just feel unnecessary.
Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996) seems like a misstep, mining the kind of jagged, angry funk that the band have developed over the last few albums. The song focuses on the dark true story of a serial killer but it's easy to to get distracted by the needless production including a baffling pitch-warping vocal effect that Brock uses through the song.
Lines like “If there's some point to this then which one is mine” on Pups To Dust see familiar lyrical themes like life and death carry over into these songs, not always with the same subtlety as in the past but Brock can still deliver them with a real sense of weight. Strangers To Ourselves gets away with mixing a lot of different styles, unabashed pop sing-a-long Wicked Campaign and ramshackle camp fire folk of God Is An Indian And You're An Asshole shouldn't work but really do. Sugar Boats is a rock song for a strange and twisted circus led by a bouncy bass line and squealing horns. It isn't a complete success but is a little better than it should be thanks to it's nervous and manic energy.
Maybe it is a victim of it's eight year gestation; the album covers a lot of styles but never manages to pull these threads together as a whole. For all the tracks that work there are more than a few that just pass you by, tracks like the opener Strangers To Ourselves and Coyotes just never give you enough to latch onto. Given all the talk of abandoned recordings, it could have come out much worse. Strangers To Ourselves still feels disjointed and it's runtime of nearly an hour doesn't help. It may feel unnecessarily dense and disparate but amongst the varying offerings the album does have enough high points to keep Modest Mouse fans happy - especially if they've enjoyed the bands 2000's output - and reminds you why they can be a special band.