What do you love about Modest Mouse? Odds are, if you’re checking out Strangers To Ourselves, you’ve had at least a few years to think about it, and you’re really, really hoping to hear harmonics, manic lyric deliveries, a tight rhythm section, or all of the above. Depending on when you started listening to the band, there’s a fair chance you’re looking forward to some catchy, strangely danceable tracks or an extended instrumental break. Maybe you’re just happy to have something new. If you’re the type of fan I am, you’re going to find plenty to be excited about. Full of brilliant compositions and subtle, though effective, expansions on the group’s trademark sound, Strangers To Ourselves isn’t an instant classic, but don’t be surprised if repeated listens make it start to edge out the band’s older work in your list of favorites.
Even if the lyrics didn’t open with “we’re lucky that we slept,” opener and title track “Strangers To Ourselves” would still feel like an awakening of a giant, with its deliberately plodding bass and drums, twinkling chimes, and winding strings. It harkens back to the feel of Good News For People Who Love Bad News’s “World At Large,” but is more weathered and observational. It helps build a good amount of anticipation before “Lampshades On Fire,” which was the perfect choice for a comeback single. Full of classic Isaac Brock lyrics, harmonics, and “buh-buhs,” it would’ve been at home on We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank, but incorporates a few older instrumental hallmarks and hits every note a fan of the band’s whole catalog should appreciate. Although maybe not the outright best song on the album, it has the clearest vision and tightest execution. If you tried to come up with a song that sounds like the last half of Modest Mouse’s career, it’d end up pretty close to this one.
“Shit In Your Cut” marks another dynamic shift with its mysterious, drawling feel. The chimes, guitar lines, and lower vocals combine for an interesting tone that lasts just long enough before the crashing drums that open “Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996)” kick in. If you’re going to absolutely hate a song on Strangers To Ourselves, “Pistol” is that song. It’s unlike anything the band’s done before and, while it’s sure to find its champions, its odd vocal production and subject matter make it the biggest miss on the record. That its placement in the album order is less than ideal only compounds the problem. Luckily, “Ansel” overcomes the album’s lowest point with a mostly upbeat, vaguely tropical jaunt in and out of Mexico. There’s more to the song than a first listen might let on, as the story finds Brock detailing the loss of his brother and coping with a lack of closure. Although this isn’t the first time he’s written on the subject, it’s certainly the most explicit and intimate telling of the story, and his reflections make the record better off for it.
“The Ground Walks, With Time In A Box” is a fucking jam. That’s almost all that needs to be said about it. The groove is on point, and it’s clear that this lineup is locked in and perfectly comfortable playing with one another. With multiple instrumental sections sandwiching wonderful lyrics like “bang us together, see what sort of sounds we make right now” and “close up a window, all the air, all the air is falling out,” this track’s meant for longtime fans of the band. It’ll hold your attention the whole way, and that moment at 4:15 should be enough to get you through whatever you’re working on. The song clocks in at over six minutes and, as one of the best on the record, still almost feels like it’s gone too soon. “Coyotes” is a deceptively simple, lilting song that you’re going to find yourself singing along to for the rest of whatever day you listen to the album on. Its closest parallel is probably No One’s First, And You’re Next’s “Autumn Beds,” though it’s certainly a more complete take on that sound.
The main lyrical thrust of “Pups To Dust” might be the best thesis for Strangers To Ourselves: “We remain the same (well I’m not sure about that); pretty much the same (now that’s more like it).” The track’s home to maybe my personal favorite line on the record (“I don’t lie very often, but I lie very well”), and it’s not the only gem to be found in the song. In addition to a great guitar line and majestically ringing harmonic, Brock’s call and response vocals in the second verse are amusing enough; the interplay between his outer and inner thoughts is exactly the sort of quirk fans will get excited about. “Sugar Boats,” on the other hand, is built wholly on those quirks, with its manic, circusy piano part, horns, and lyrical repetition. Brock puts everything he has into every line here, and the song formerly known as “Heart Of Mine” is sure to be a live show staple for years to come. “Wicked Campaign,” though perfectly fine when you’re listening to it, is mostly forgettable in comparison to the rest of the record. “Be Brave” is a big part of why that’s true. Benefitting from its dark tone, the song is about as heavy and hard-hitting as the band gets, even with its prettier parts. Prepare to walk around repeating this song’s title over and over in your head.
“God Is An Indian And You’re An Asshole” is a time warp into the late 90’s, as if a demo from The Lonesome Crowded West were uncovered and thrown onto this record as some sort of out-in-the-open Easter egg. It’s sweet enough, but just a bit too short. “The Tortoise And The Tourist” is as close to “The Whale Song” as Strangers To Ourselves gets, but it’s not without faults. The guitars are all anyone’s ever asked of this band and there are lots of great lyrics and yelled lines, but the actual storytelling here feels forced and falls a bit flat. If you can ignore a few awkward phrasings, the song is good enough, but not quite great. “The Best Room” is the same sort of party “Lampshades On Fire” and “The Ground Walks, With Time In A Box” started earlier on, and it fits nicely with those two as high points spread throughout the record. In the song’s tamer portions, Brock asks, “ain’t it hard feeling tired all the time?” That one hits home. The song blends absolutely ridiculous lines with more serious ones, and it all works perfectly. “Of Course We Know” closes the record out on a heavy, atmospheric note that parallels the album’s opener both lyrically and instrumentally. It gives a sense of completion and ties everything together nicely.
The “eight years between albums” point is entirely played out, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Expectations can get too high, particularly when a band is so well-loved. The thing is, this is a band that’s admired for a reason – whenever it puts out a new album, it’s going to be good. Strangers To Ourselves is no exception. In some ways, it might be the best record the band’s released, at least in terms of its diversity. When I asked what you loved about Modest Mouse, it didn’t matter what your answer was going to be; I could point to something on this album that was going to be almost exactly what you wanted to hear. If “Lampshades On Fire” didn’t immediately draw you in, “Coyotes” probably did, or maybe you had to wait until you heard “Ansel” or “God Is An Indian And You’re An Asshole.” Either way, you probably like something on this record or you don’t like Modest Mouse at all. It’s hard to see any middle ground.