Modest Mouse‘s Strangers to Ourselves is their 2015 studio album, the first since 2007, a crazy mix of short and long, humor and weight, fresh lyrics and repetitive rhymes, interesting instruments and textures, and maddening refrains. There were only a few tracks I outright hated here, but more than a few that for one reason or another didn’t rise above sea level for me. The rest, though, were easy to be fond of. As I was listening I was worried that I’d fall into my personal prejudice toward faster, more lively stuff that pounds, but on reflection a few of my faves wound up being slower, more thoughtful ones.
The title song ‘Strangers to Ourselves’ is one of the slower; a bit (well, more than a bit) Pink Floyd-y in its contemplative violin, its lyric about being the artist’s or philosopher’s version of “stuck in traffic” a pretty apt image for its languid, rainy-day feel. Straight afterward, the funky, slamming ‘Lampshades on Fire’ describes a party in frenzy, about to pick up and mess up some new location, a party that’s taken on a mad life of its own, threatening to take you along with it.
The fifth track ‘Ansel’ took a while to reveal itself to me. Spinning out its brief, haunted story about a lost brother and the mystery he (and everyone, really) leaves behind using a refrain that’s repetitive with awkward syllable stresses, it still hammered its way through my defenses, making it one of my favorites by the weight of its tone and theme alone.
In a style which I sometimes think of as “speeding-beneath-the-streetlights”, with bass, drums, and el-guitar all hitting in rapid beats, ‘The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box’ keeps a brisk pace. Its strange, messy, sometimes modulated vocals are delivered the same way as the instruments, making them sort of disappear, but through this it only bolsters its impression of driving movement.
‘Sugar Boats’ has a quick-yet-lumbering, up-down two note sinister carnival feel, some lovely trumpet suggesting a bit of New Orleans parade before largely fading into strange whirrs and pops, with grainy, distorted guitar and manic shouts. I don’t know what the hell it’s about but it’s catchy.
Not the only song leaning on humor (despite this not really being a comedy album), the absurd ‘The Best Room’ was probably the funniest for me. But there’s also a mad desperation in the narrator, surrounded by oppressive neighbors and empty spaces, exhausted, on edge. The clever lyrics are given a nice drum-guitar pulse to ride on, but the images the words paint are the treat here.
All of those tracks were tops for me, and there were only a couple more that I out and out disliked, being repetitive yet dry. There were many, though, in this 15 song album that failed to make a strong mark on me. Shit in Your Cut started great but relied way too heavily on its refrain. The leering ‘Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996)’’s satirical distance from its subject didn’t help me get through it. The sweet, airy, sleepy ‘Coyote’ has some nice imagery but couldn’t get its claws into me. ‘Pups to Dust’ was probably my top song of this middle list, a nice stomp and playful lyrics with a chorus seeming to argue with itself:
“we remain the same/
now I’m not sure about that/
or pretty much the same/
now that’s more like it”
It felt like it could have gone a bit further, though– not unlike the brief, WYSIWYG western track ‘God Is an Indian and You’re an Asshole.’
The rest are varying degrees of cyclical that after a while I couldn’t weather; too much of the same within a given song that started wearing me down too early without giving enough back. Even these have bits to salvage; interesting sentiments or lyrical turns, but I don’t think I’ll revisit them much.
Strangers to Ourselves has definite leaders and followers here. Some leapt out at me and became instant friends, while a few required repeat listens for their worth to unfold. On the whole it has some creative lyrics and imagery, with nice thumping beats and a decent variety of tones and instruments. I could have done without some of the less ambitious stuff, but it is great to see a band that could mix a bit of depth and humor, sometimes within the same song.
Words: Strange Bundle