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Review: Modest Mouse’s Middling Comeback, ‘Strangers to Ourselves’

5
SPIN Rating: 5 of 10
Release Date: March 16, 2015
Label: Epic

Eight years and this is it? After several false starts, reports of curious collaborations with two fulcrums from all-time great bands (Big Boi! Krist Novoselic!), an abandoned tour, and an odds-and-ends stopgap EP, this is what we get? A rudderless 15-song set that slightly improves the standing of 2007’s middle-of-the-moat We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank?

To be clear: Strangers to Ourselves — Modest Mouse’s sixth album and first in nearly a decade — isn’t without its bright spots. Lead single “Lampshades on Fire” is the sort of competent post-“Float On” romp we’ve come to expect from the Pacific Northwest outfit: a bitter pill (in this case, a fatalist freakout about climate change) made sweet with eccentric uplift (the “bah-bah-bah” refrain, fat-bottomed groove, and sleigh-bell jingle). Small-stakes standout “Ansel” charms with steel-drum shimmer; the tightly wound thump and latter-half drift of “The Ground Walks, With Time In a Box” recalls the similarly structured “A Different City” from 2000’s The Moon and Antarctica. These are just a handful of the relative highs, but even the best of them feel unremarkable — more so coming after such a lengthy hiatus.

Far more memorable is “Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996),” the record’s flat-out worst track, a pseudo-industrial clunker that contains the line, “I’m gonna zip-zip-zip-zip-zip-za-za-za-zip your pants on down / I’m gonna sip-sip-sip-sip-sip from my royal, royal, royal crown.” As ridiculous as it is on its own merit, a rhyme like that is even more of a misstep coming from frontman Isaac Brock, who’s built a fascinating and singular career as a half-in-the-bag philosopher, a master of off-kilter hooks badgering the universe for answers. The album’s excessive run time and lack of a centerpiece don’t do the collection any favors, either, and neither does the overstuffed, horn-blasted carnival sideshow that is “Sugar Boats” or the almost-self-parodic 77-second aside dubbed “God Is an Indian and You’re an Asshole.”

Perhaps this disappointment shouldn’t be surprising. Modest Mouse’s hot streak has been cooling off for a good while. Even defenders of We Were Dead and 2009’s No One’s First and You’re Next have to admit that the stop-and-start recording sessions of the last few years — not to mention the departure of founding bassist Eric Judy, who bailed way back in 2012 — were disquieting.

That said, it didn’t seem out of the realm of possibility that Modest Mouse could make a triumphant (if self-lacerating) return. This band has never made an out-and-out bad album, but now it has made an uninspired one. And whether we’re hungry for it or not, a follow-up to Strangers is supposedly already in the works according to Brock, who says a “partner” album will be released “as quickly as it’s legally allowed to be.” We’ll believe it when we hear it, but his promise of a speedy successor brings to mind a question he asks early into Strangers: “This one’s done / So where to now?”