What do I think about the new Modest Mouse album, Strangers To Ourselves, their first in eight years? The short answer is this: I don’t know. I just don’t know.
I’m aware that that’s not exactly the strongest way to start a review, but to be honest it’s the only opening that feels right. Strangers To Ourselves is unfocussed in a way that could either be great – the sound of a band constantly trying for the new; striving for the unusual – or, it could be the record’s greatest downfall – the sound of a band blindly throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks.
Reinvention has been the name of Modest Mouse’s game for some time now, and one of their great strengths; one need only compare the sound of the devastatingly beautiful The Lonesome Crowded West, with the frenetic, jagged tone of the No One’s First And Your Next EP to see that Isaac Brock et al are unwilling (or perhaps unable) to stay still.
But rather than shaking up their style from release to release, on Strangers To Ourselves the band make left turns from track to track. Album opener Strangers To Ourselves is a slow build of yearning and loss; a genuinely moving, string saturated take on love and life in the modern world. The tone it develops is one of quiet, damaged beauty; a tone that is thrown out of the window as soon as the jangly, boppy strains of Lampshades On Fire breaks out. Not that either track is bad – in fact, both are incredibly strong – but they just jar with one another.
No two tracks sound even vaguely similar – a trait that I would usually chalk up as a significant achievement, but feel in this case slightly reticent to do. The constant tonal departures means the record never gains real momentum: Coyotes, a tune that marries bleak lyrics (“mankind’s behaving like some serial killer”) with a touching, waltz-like melody is a real stand out, and the climax it builds too is both pained and sincere; but then we get the strangely subdued, oddly poppy Pups to Dust, an ever so slightly flat experience that sends the whole thing in an entirely different direction.
We get the demented brilliance of Sugar Boats, perhaps the album’s strongest track; then we get Wicked Campaign, a less successful tune that seems to owe a lot to the disco-influenced intensity of Arcade Fire’s Reflektor; then we get the insistent Be Brave; then the brief, experimental, country-tinged God Is an Indian And You’re An Asshole. The changes of gear are exhausting – infuriating, maybe.
By the time the pounding, touching Of Course We Know drew to a close, I was left dumfounded. Did I hate the fourteen tracks I had just heard? Not at all. In fact, at times, I had really loved them. Did I love the record then? No. I felt as though I had just listened to a compilation album, each track composed by a different group of artists. But isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t the willingness to take risks what I’ve always wanted from music?
The short answer, once again: I just don’t know. So, do me a favour, and mentally put a question mark after the three stars out of five below.