By Brandon Agalaba
Modest Mouse released their sixth album “Strangers to Ourselves” in March 2015 after an eight-year gap from 2007’s “We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank.” Modest Mouse have changed their sound from their fourth album “Good News For People Who Love Bad News.” They’ve allowed the songs to became more accessible and less challenging than those in the early days while sacrificing the aspects that made Modest Mouse who they are. “Strangers to Ourselves” is thus a disappointing showing from the band because it follows this downward trend.
Isaac Brock’s vocals, which were part of what made Modest Mouse so unique, seemed too generic on this latest album. On previous records such as “The Lonesome Crowded West” and “The Moon & Antarctica,” Brock sang in a rough, nasal but compelling style that complemented the music that backed him. However, ever since 2004’s “Good News,” he went for more a more conventional, smoother style akin to a generic, indie-rock singer.
Brock continues this trend on “Strangers to Ourselves,” and it winds up decreasing the overall quality of the album greatly. Even though his vocals are less challenging and more overtly melodic, they wind up sounding nondescript and mediocre. The emotional nuances and outright intensity that his vocals had on Modest Mouse’s earlier albums have virtually disappeared on this album, and they make the songs less energetic, less impactful and ultimately forgettable. Brock’s vocals aren’t bad on a technical level, but they add little to the songs, and they make the listener wonder what happened to the old Brock.
The songs themselves are decent — they have good instrumentation, diversity and go through various moods and feelings. But the songwriting comes up flat. “The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box” is a funky number with a groovy bassline and solid guitar work, and the title track of “Strangers to Ourselves” opens the album in a nice, operatic way. However, the real problems come with how the songs are actually constructed.
The song structures are OK, but they’re uninteresting and not as creative as on Modest Mouse’s earlier albums. The melodies are boring, the emotion is lacking and the songs are quite forgettable. In general, the songs are passable, but they lack substance and wind up sounding boring most of the time.
Modest Mouse has always had a tendency (or flaw, depending on who you ask) to make lengthy albums that take the listener on a journey through Brock’s thoughts on the nature of life. For example, “The Lonesome Crowded West” and “The Moon & Antarctica” are musical adventures that run for more than an hour. “Good News” is Modest Mouse’s shortest album so far, and it still has a length of nearly 50 minutes. However, the length of “Strangers to Ourselves” makes things worse instead of better. The album itself isn’t very impressive in the first place, and the length makes it even clearer that the album lacks memorable songs. “Strangers to Ourselves” runs for nearly an hour, which makes the flaws even more apparent. Instead of being a concise product that runs for 30 to 40 minutes, “Strangers to Ourselves” drags, and it has too much filler. The length will make the listener wonder when the album will end, and the listener will also wonder why Modest Mouse can’t make their albums easier to listen to.
In contrast, though, the production is solid. The album has a nice, clean sound that is polished and radio-friendly. Everything is crystal clear, and the songs ring with life and energy. The instruments are produced well, and nothing overpowers anything else in “Strangers to Ourselves.” The songs are also littered with instruments and sounds beyond the usual guitar, bass and drums, which gives the songs more layers.
The production initially makes the album more bearable, because the cleanliness of the album manages to hide the flaws of the songs at the beginning. However, the lack of energy in the songs causes the production to worsen in some ways.
In general, the album may be mediocre, but it is a disappointment in comparison. It basically confirms Modest Mouse has comfortably settled into being a generic, indie-rock band. The intelligent, diverse, thoughtful and surprising Modest Mouse that fans knew from 1996 to 2000 has virtually disappeared at this point, and it won’t come back for a long time.