All lyrics by and property of Modest Mouse.
Modest Mouse is another of those bands that I hated at first. I remember when “Float On” invaded the airwaves, and played approximately every five seconds on every single radio station, and it just plain grated on my nerves.
Then a DJ at my local alternative station decided to break the mold and play “Bukowski”, which I found interesting. After that, “Ocean Breathes Salty” and “Bury Me With It” replaced “Float On” and cemented Modest Mouse as one of my favorite bands. In time I would even come to like “Float On”.
I like bands that don’t sound the same with every album they put out. I like Good News for People Who Love Bad News, I like We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, I like The Moon and Antarctica, and I like various other songs from their past discography that I’ve heard over the years. I love the ironic, clever lyrics and titles, the anger present in Isaac Brock’s voice even when the accompanying music ventures into zany, even goofy territory, and I love Jeremiah Greene’s complicated, addictive drum beats.
There has always been, however, a strange duality to Modest Mouse’s releases. I tend to absolutely love about half of each record and not really care for the rest. In an even weirder turn of events, I do like those songs I don’t care for—while I’m listening to them. It just usually takes some out-of-the-ordinary turn of events to get me listening to them.
Eight long years went by without a new release from Modest Mouse, so I hoped they were working on something special. Finally they announced Strangers to Ourselves, which I promptly pre-ordered; Modest Mouse is one of a very few bands whose music I can easily pre-order without hearing a note of, because I know I’m going to get something good out of it.
What I got was probably the first Modest Mouse album where I love almost every song.
The album starts off slow, with “Strangers to Ourselves”. Honestly, it’s a little boring for an opener; I’d like it a lot more as a minute, minute-and-a-half tune, but it lingers for three and a half. It stands in stark contrast to other openers; “The World at Large” is a slow and lethargic song, but I love it for its clever lyrics and playful melodies strewn throughout the track. “March Into the Sea” is a fun opener for how loud and angry it is, and “3rd Planet” is the song that turned me on to the band’s earlier discography in the first place. “Strangers to Ourselves” just doesn’t pack the same punch as any of them.
The album takes a sharp turn for the better with “Lampshades on Fire”, a faster, upbeat tune that sets the environmentalist tone found through most of the album. It’s a good example of that irony I mentioned earlier; the song sounds happy and upbeat while Isaac Brock belts out frustrating, angry lyrics like “Pack up our things and head to the next place / Where we’ll make the same mistakes.” After this is “Shit in Your Cut”, an odd song that reminds me of something off of Brand New’s Daisy. It’s darker and slower but just as much fun.
If “Shit in Your Cut” is like a Brand New song, “Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996)” sounds like the band’s attempt at a Nine Inch Nails tribute. A quick Google of the title suggests this song is probably about the formative years of a certain serial killer. “Ansel” continues the theme of upbeat-sounding songs with dark, disturbing meanings, this one about how Brock never patched things up with his step brother before he died in an avalanche.
“The Ground Walks, With Time in a Box” is another fun one. Lyrically, it reminds me of the “beauty in nature/science” themes found on The Moon and Antarctica, at least partially, as it seems a little bit more sinister toward the end. I love the lead guitar and the multiple male/female vocal chorus, something present in a few songs on the album. The addition of feminine vocals in general to Modest Mouse’s sound is a refreshing and welcome one, and it works well.
If I had written this post a week ago, I would probably mention how much I dislike “Coyotes” right about now, but it ended up growing on me. I’m not fond of the lyrics for the verses basically being the same thing but in reverse order, but I do love the brief bits of acoustic guitar that pop up before the chorus. “Pups to Dust” is my current favorite. The first time I heard the main vocals arguing with the backing vocals I laughed out loud and it has that flowing, airy lead guitar I’ve always loved in Modest Mouse. “Sugar Boats” is another favorite of mine; if steampunk has a sound to it, it’s this song. “Wicked Campaign” slows things down again, while “Br Brave” is one of the few songs I don’t particularly care for. It’s all right while I’m listening, but it’s not one I’ll go out of my way to listen to.
Well I’m not a doctor, but I’ll sell you an itch
I could apologize, but then a bit more nothing’d exist
So the world’s got plenty of good and bad liars,
But our lies should come with chariots and choirs!
—Modest Mouse, “Wicked Campaign”
“God is an Indian and You’re an Asshole” is a funny little interlude set before “The Tortoise and the Tourist” which is probably the most important song on the record. Every Modest Mouse record has at least one song I’d argue has an almost literary quality to it, and this is it on Strangers to Ourselves. It’s heavy and dark, very cynical, it’s a good thing it’s sandwiched between “God is an Indian and You’re an Asshole” and “The Best Room”.
There was this tortoise, its shell was covered with jewels
And had been since time began
It knew the world through all its histories
And the universe and its mysteries
One day it came across a man
The two were talking,
The tortoise offered to tell him about the future and how the universe ran
Oh, the man killed the tortoise, took its shell, and with a song on his lips, walked off again.
—Modest Mouse, “The Tortoise and the Tourist”
Speaking of, “The Best Room” is another fun one, a heavy criticism of western culture. The last minute or so escalates into a crazy, fast summary of the entire song preceding it, accompanied by a wild lead guitar part and a sudden dropoff ending the song.
“Of Course We Know” closes the album, and it’s another one I don’t really go out of my way to listen to. I love the theme of it, the lullaby-like tone accompanying a criticism of complacency, but the song is very long and repetitive. It’s one I have to be in a certain mood to listen to.
On the whole, Strangers to Ourselves is critical without being preachy, it’s dark but fun, it has a strong theme that it carries through to the end. It’s easily my favorite Modest Mouse album. It was worth the wait, but I still hope the next one doesn’t take quite so long to come around.
Go reckless, unharmed
The shut-ins they’re well-armed
Well we all led the charge,
‘Til we ran aground in our party barge
Every little gift was just one more part of their grift
Oh yeah, we know it.
The best news that we got
Was some dumb hokum we all bought
Let’s go reckless, feeling great
We’re the sexiest of all primates
Let’s let loose with our charms,
Shake our ass and wave our arms,
All going apeshit.
—Modest Mouse, “The Best Room”