Don’t call it a comeback: Modest Mouse will be the first to tell you that it never really went away in the first place. The group just stopped making records for a while, taking on the right mix of touring, soundtrack work, and home-studio construction to stave off an official hiatus.
The band’s long-awaited sixth album appears after a gap roughly equal to the time between 1996’s debut This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About and 2004’s crossover success Good News For People Who Love Bad News—a span of stunning creative progress and two intervening masterpieces. And never mind its title: Strangers To Ourselves is anything but unrecognizable. Long break aside, Strangers wins on near-uniformly excellent songwriting rather than reinvention. Like 2007’s We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank, it’s a comfortably familiar return to the less-than-comfortable mix of weighty lyrics and jittery, crazy-eyed indie rock that’s sustained Modest Mouse’s illustrious career.
Despite recent lineup shifts (longtime bassist Eric Judy and not-so-longtime guitarist Johnny Marr are out, multi-instrumentalists Russell Higbee and Lisa Molinaro in), Isaac Brock still yelps, yowls, and rages like it’s 1997. His overarching concerns are as cosmic as ever; on the brilliantly spooked “Be Brave,” he urges listeners to keep it together while comparing humans to “a bit more piss” dripping from the Earth’s bladder. The quavery-voiced singer hasn’t quite mellowed with middle age, but there are signs of a kinder, gentler Modest Mouse on Strangers. The title track opens the affair with a lullaby of sorts: “How lucky we are,” a crooning Brock muses over yawning cellos and jazz-brush drums. On the Calypso-tinted “Ansel,” he recounts a tale of a brother’s disappearance in Mexico, though there’s an odd hint of acceptance in the song’s mantra-like refrain: that “You can’t know / You won’t ever even know” when seeing a friend for the last time.
Traces of the caustic, cage-rattling Modest Mouse of old occur, but they are just that: stylistic remnants tried on for size to see if they still fit. They appear in bursts: the violent bark of a chorus on “The Tortoise And The Tourist”; the unhinged buildup on the excellent, UFO-inspired “The Best Room.” The most striking—and least successful—of these is “Pistol,” a thumping, robot-voiced dead ringer for late-career Ween (no coincidence: It’s produced by Ween pal Andrew Weiss). But this isn’t Lonesome Crowded West-style lo-fi. Brock obsessed over the production and mixes for months if not years, and they are suitably rich (catch the horned-up disco pastiche “The Ground Walks, With Time In A Box”), though the songs, more than their arrangements, keep Strangers afloat. They won’t be getting the Kidz Bop treatment soon, but nor do they abandon the pop possibilities that Good News opened up.
Shoegaze loyalists will cry sacrilege, but there’s a parallel to be drawn with mbv, the 2013 My Bloody Valentine release, when a beloved band returned from an extended wait with an album so vividly familiar it could have been recorded just a year or two after the previous one. Modest Mouse has been moving sideways since “Float On” hit jackpot, but it was never just spinning its wheels. With We Were Dead, Isaac Brock et al. hinted that they wouldn’t be capable of matching the astounding trajectory of Modest Mouse’s first decade in business. Strangers To Ourselves indicates that Modest Mouse isn’t capable of releasing a disappointing record, either.