Modest Mouse – Strangers To Ourselves
It’s a common expression amongst long-time Modest Mouse fans that the band peaked with their debut, 1996’s This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About, and have been in a slow state of perpetual decline ever since. Personally, I would say that this is a bit misleading; they peaked on 1997’s Lonesome Crowded West and have been declining ever since.
When Good News For People Who Love Bad News came out, my friend and roommate opined that it was the worst Modest Mouse album yet, which still made it better than most of what had been released that year. I made the same joke in 2007 when We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank came out, and eight years later here I am making it again. It really is the worst Modest Mouse record – leaving aside their “debut”, 1994’s Sad Sappy Sucker – and while it’s no longer at the point where it’s better than most everything else, it still holds up quite well.
Ever since “Float On” improbably broke the band to a wider audience, their albums have alternated between radio-ready dance friendly numbers and slower, artsier pieces. “Lampshades On Fire” is the radio ready track here, waking up anyone who dozed off during the snoozy title track that opens the album. “Shit In Your Cut”, “Coyotes”, and the closer “Of Course We Know” are the more introspective cuts, following in the footsteps of classic songs like “Gravity Rides Everything” and “The Cold Part”. “Shit In Your Cut” is the worst of the three, being too long by an entire minute and relatively uninteresting besides. “The Ground Walks, With Time In A Box” and “God Is An Indian And You’re An Asshole” are both classic-sounding Modest Mouse songs; “Pups To Dust” and “The Tortoise and the Tourist” both attempt to hit that note as well but fall relatively flat. “Pistol” and “Sugar Boats” are more evidence of frontman Isaac Brock’s fascination with Tom Waits, a fascination that became exceedingly clear on the odder parts of Good News.
Lyrically, the theme that Isaac Brock focuses on here is environmental degradation and the impact that the human species has on it. “Lampshades On Fire” posits the human existence on Earth as a destructive locust party; “Ground Walks” features the line “The world’s an inventor / We’re the dirtiest thing it’s thought about / And we really don’t mind”; “Coyotes” shows mankind as a predator, saying “Mankind’s behavin’ like some serial killer”. By the time “Be Brave” comes around, he acknowledges that despite our efforts at killing it off, the planet is just too massive to care: “Well the Earth doesn’t care and we hardly even matter / We’re just a bit more piss to push out its full bladder / And as our bodies float down onto all their rocky little bits / Piled up under mountains of dirt and silt / And still, the world, it don’t give a shit”. The last track, “Of Course We Know”, takes the widescreen view of our time on this planet, asking “what in hell are we here for?” before realizing that “we just do not know”.
Strangers To Ourselves is actually quite a good album despite being the band’s worst. Isaac Brock may be slowing down the weird gnarled rock factory with age and sobriety, but he still manages to put indie rock artists half his age to shame. It may not be AOTY material, per se, but it’s a worthy addition to a legendary band’s canon.