Modest Mouse’s sixth proper LP, Strangers to Ourselves, doesn’t just feature a clever moniker. The concept is a recurring theme, opening with the title track and later popping up in lyrics as the band unveils 15 new songs. But Modest Mouse in 2015 aren’t solely strangers to themselves, they are strangers to their fans, too. There have been eight years between proper LPs, and some people who came to the band as college-aged fans in their heyday are now entering their 30s. The question that begs to be answered is whether Modest Mouse or their fans have changed more.
Probably a little of both, really. But either way, Strangers to Ourselves isn’t a sort of front-to-back pleaser that the band’s first four LPs were. Rather, Strangers to Ourselves continues the chapter of Modest Mouse’s career that began with We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank (another album title that said a lot about the band’s state of being at the time of release), offering occasional highlights scattered with forgettable diversions, too smart to be fully disappointing, but never inspired enough to really satisfy.
That isn’t to say Strangers to Ourselves is a failure in any sense. The opening juxtaposition from the title track to their smash single “Lampshades on Fire” is attention-grabbing and bold, maybe not capturing the band at their creative height, but finding them still focused and savvy, knowing what works, knowing how to make do with what they can accomplish at this stage of their career. The six-minute rager “The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box” finds Brock channeling his Good News for People that Love Bad News self, knowingly dropping the word “party” (along with “Lampshades”), repainting Modest Mouse as a 2015 bar band. All things considered, it could be a lot worse.
Other high points include the instrumental conclusion of “Coyotes,” the National-esque “Wicked Campaign,” and the carnival from hell that is “Sugar Boats.” These might not fall into the Modest Mouse pantheon, but there is still a lot to like within, from the horns on “Sugar Boats” to the string arrangements on “Strangers to Ourselves.” The biggest problem is that Strangers to Ourselves also houses plenty of whiffs, such as the over-produced drug nightmare “Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996),” the Lonesome Crowded West-sad imitation “Pups to Dust,” and the aggravating diversion “God Is an Indian and You’re an Asshole.” For an album that, like every other Modest Mouse album, rattles on at an extended length, Strangers to Ourselves can desperately afford to trim the fat.
But details like the album’s length, the song and record titles and frontman Isaac Brock’s fading ability to craft a memorable turn of phrase are all presented like signifiers for Modest Mouse, mirages of the real thing. On “The Tortoise and the Tourist,” Brock sings “We are strangers to ourselves / We sneak out / Drip by drip / Through paper cuts on our hands / Day after day / Nothing’s quite the same / We are tourists in our own heads.” Brock’s self-awareness has always been a strength, and even as the band looses some of its most beloved characteristics, there is a charm to this self-referential lyricism. In this song, Brock’s solution is to “walk on,” to push forward, and there is something to admire there. Later, on the very good “The Best Room,” forgiveness from the audience should come easy, when Brock admits “don’t you know it’s hard feeling tired every time that you try?” Maybe we aren’t all such strangers after all.