The music industry loves a hiatus, and the last few years have provided some real humdingers. D’Angelo dropped Black Messiah out of thin air at the end of 2014, deservedly inspiring a proverbial circle-jerk of critical acclaim. Perhaps the most prominent reformation of the last few years has been Swans; this gang of 60-something rockers returned in 2010, after fourteen years absent, and released three of their greatest albums of a career spanning over 30 years.
Back in the 90s, Modest Mouse were at the forefront of the proliferation of idiosyncratic indie music. Since then, like many great bands before them, there has been an inconsistency in personnel. Despite this, the prevalence of Isaac Brock’s barked vocals and a distinct sound always ensured that they maintained their distinct musical identity. A quest undoubtedly challenged when the chart-topping Float On thrust them headfirst into the limelight.
Musically, Strangers is an eclectic departure from what I would term Modest Mouse’s peak spell, between The Lonesome Crowded West and Good News For People Who Love Bad News. Lampshades Of Fire will undoubtedly emerge as the headline track; it takes much of the formula that proved so fruitful for Float On, with a healthy dose of poppy synth and a throaty refrain chucked in for good measure.
The bizarre contradiction of most Modest Mouse albums has been their ability to maintain a sound both instantly recognisable, and simultaneously unlike anything they’ve produced. In light of this, Strangers’ overarching theme of disassociation seems coincidentally appropriate. No two tracks feel the same, though each has Brock’s unmistakable fingerprints all over them.
In the machine-drum laden Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996), Brock distorts his voice, engendering a sort of ironic bravado. He adopts the persona of infamous American spree killer, Andrew Cunanan, who murdered fashion designer, Gianni Versace, along with four others in the late 90s, without any apparent motive. It’s a subtle but poignant nod to the notion of disassociation littered across the record.
An undoubted highlight comes in the form of Cayote – a track that encapsulates the thematic drive of Strangers. It’s a lament of the relationship between man and nature: “Mankind’s behaving like some serial killers, giant ol’ monsters afraid of the sharks.” The antipathy is palpable; Brock doesn’t feel connected to humanity and it’s hypocritical profession of love for nature.
The unfortunate check on Strangers’ potential to be considered amongst the bands’ best albums is its length. Ninth track, Sugar Boats, signs off with a fabulous whirring crescendo, and gives way to the Wicked Campaign, which by all accounts would serve as an appropriately measured finale. However, for the next five tracks, I couldn’t seem to shake the feeling that each was largely redundant to the cause.
I would hasten to add that none of the final third of Strangers was notably poor. In fact, some of it is genuinely rather great; closing track, Of Course We Know, was clearly a considered and intentionally sombre finale, whilst The Best Room is an uplifting nod to their earlier years. And yet there is a nagging sense that none of these pieces provide any meaningful thematic or musical substance that hadn’t already been achieved. God Is An Indian And You’re An Asshole boasts perhaps the greatest title of any track you’re likely to see this year, yet it serves as little more than a deliberately brief interlude. It’s not enough to ruin a good album, but it’s enough to temper the initial enthusiasm.
There’s no real danger here of Modest Mouse eclipsing the quality they achieved so early in their career. Nonetheless as an album, Strangers To Ourselves does plenty to suggest that Brock and pals aren’t ready to vanish into the ether of indie folklore just yet.