A peculiar sort of ugliness has always helped define Modest Mouse's beauty: At the root—or often at the front—of Isaac Brock's catchy indie blueprints sits a vengeful bark, ornery guitars, and dark lyrics made darker by the fact that they're usually so incisive and smart. But there's a straight, bright line to be drawn from early Modest Mouse high points to We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank, the follow-up to 2004's commercial breakthrough, Good News For People Who Love Bad News. A huge, upbeat hit single—"Float On" was even covered by the Kidz Bop gang—might have portended an album's worth of MM-lite, but We Were Dead gets brighter without ever feeling formulaic. It's just the next stop on a ride that's remained intriguing even as it's become steadily easier to process. It's gotten prettier, but it never threatens to let the essential ugliness go.
That said, credit an unexpected new member for front-and-center chiming guitars this time around: Johnny Marr, the legendary Smiths guitarist who's done little to distinguish himself in the 20 years since that band split, was originally called in to help Brock write songs. The two apparently got along well enough that Marr joined permanently (insert Marrdest Mouse and/or Modest Marr joke here)—even though Oregon is a long way for a Brit to trek to practice. For ears weaned on The Smiths, his jangly influence will be obvious; to the rest of the world, this is still The Isaac Brock Show, and he's capable, as always, of steering a rickety ship right.
This time out, the tide moves to less murky musical waters, even as the attitude remains charmingly bleak. (We Were Dead was envisioned as a concept album about a boat crew that dies in every song, though it didn't turn out that way.) The first single, "Dashboard," even features some happy horns and cinematic strings, and "Fire It Up" sounds like old-school Modest Mouse wearing its Sunday best. But just when refinement threatens to rear its head, out pops "Parting Of The Sensory," which moves from dirgey acoustic ballad to a grumpy Celtic rave-up on a dime. It speaks to the larger picture: Within a basic framework of his own design, Brock never seems shy about bouncing wherever he pleases. The stunning "Florida"—one of three tracks to feature prominent guest vocals by James Mercer of The Shins—goes from pop-fueled to barking and foreboding, and "Spitting Venom," at nearly nine minutes, steps on folk, Built To Spill, and a beautiful little horn part. Easier than ever to grasp, yet still constantly, joyously vexing, We Were Dead is another terrific set from a band that couldn't make something dull even if drowning were the only other option.