Strangers to Ourselves — Review
Modest Mouse are a fan of oxymorons: The Lonesome Crowded West, Good News for People who Love Bad News, and now Strangers to Ourselves. This album is, however, perhaps the least conflicted they’ve produced. We’ve moved from just floating on, to feeling ‘lucky we are that we are’. That’s not to say that Brock has finally stopped worrying about life, death, and the universe, but rather that he accepts that life is precious. He was always far too interesting to be a nihilist, but the usual sense of futility is brought into painful relief when it is set against something important to lose.
The emotional heart of the album, ‘Ansel’, relates the story of the disappearance of Brock’s brother Ansel. In the most straightforwardly heart-rending moment Modest Mouse have produced, the final lines ask us how the hell you know when you’ll see another soul for the last time. Ansel’s body lies frozen under an avalanche, and Brock’s voice has none of his usual snarl or cynicism, just a knowing wistfulness. Even in more traditionally Modest Mouse language — birth is just ‘expulsion from an exoskelton’ — Brock pleads for ‘everyone not to go at once’.
Even more unusually, Brock seems to give proactive advice about how to maximise that life. As ever double-meaning means you can never take such instructions without a pinch of salt — ‘Be Brave’ is just as much about how futile trying to stand up to the inevitable process of decay is as it is about any meaningful way to combat such exhaustion — but it at leasts hints at some degree of agency. ‘Sugar Boats’ wonders whether our emotions is an evolutionary trick, but also acknowledges that even ghosts might feel emotional regret. Only in Brock’s head could that be spun as a positive.
If life is fragile, then Strangers is pretty blunt in telling us that we’re fucking it up. The four singles from the album are all concerned with the myriad ways humanity has found to screw with the Earth. We burn it up, or just chop it down; mankind is a serial killer; we’re reckless, but feel great; and the air has become sawdust, and the trees ghosts. Previously Brock has used the the alien as a metaphor for human life, whether that be the universe (Moon and Antarctica) or a voyage of the damned (We Were Dead). On Strangers the metaphor is much closer to home; we fuck up our lives like we fuck up the planet.
There are tonal missteps. If ‘Pistol’ is trying to recreate the magic of ‘Tiny City Made of Ashes’, then it fails abysmally. Whether ironic or not, the cheap innuendo of ‘why don’t you come into my room and clean my pistol’ sits uneasily with the rest of the album, and indeed the canon of Brock’s lyrics. More worryingly, unlike ‘Tiny City’ which melds into the other-worldliness of Moon and Antarctica and sets up the middle section of the album, ‘Pistol’ comes close to ruining the flow of the front half of the album — the aggressive voice distortion and tuning make it difficult to zone out of its crassness. Similarly, if less offensively, ‘God is an Indian and You’re an Asshole’ should have been left on the inside cover for the gloriously silly title, but left off the actual album.
Compared to previous albums, there are a worrying number that are overwrought or just run out of ideas before the end of their runtime. ‘Be Brave’ features one too many shouted exhortations, and ‘The Tortoise and the Tourist’ has an extended outro that seems to add little. The production of most of the tracks is very clean, even in comparison to their more recent albums. Whilst ‘Lampshades’ remains a perfect slice of indie pop in the footsteps of ‘Dashboard’, the number of instruments that fade in and out of audibility, especially when listening on headphones, is somewhat disorientating. There is still pleasure to be found in the slightly rougher ‘Of Course We Know’ that sees no need for a backing choir.
However, the major critical accusation levelled at Strangers — that it is a confusing mess musically, and lyrically does not present much progress from previous albums — is unfair. Brock’s style might veer between the direct and the opaque, but the album affirms life as much as it mourns our lack of control over its direction, and the ends we turn it to even when we do. Musically, the album is more a collection of different experiments than a coherent expansion into a new field, but each has something new to add — the Talking Heads vibe of ‘The Ground Walks’ or the pared-back ballad of ‘Coyotes’ are fresh ventures — and they suggest that Brock and Modest Mouse are a long way from being done. They still don’t feel like they belong here, and let’s hope they never do.