After eight years, Modest Mouse have officially released Strangers To Ourselves, their sixth full-length studio album, and maybe the best record they have made to date.
No strangers to socio-political subject matter, Strangers To Ourselves contains several provocative statements about humanity's out-of-touch modern values and motives. In an interview with USA Today, frontman Isaac Brock discussed what inspired his songwriting:
The nitty grit is that we're a broken species, that something's gone wrong. I don't like sounding preachy, that's not my gig. I'm every bit as much (a part) of the problem as the next person, and part of this record is sorting that out in my head for myself.
"Tortoise and the Tourist" contains the line from which the album gets its name. In it, Brock describes how people go through mindless routines: "Well, wake up, get ready, wake up, get ready / Such a wonderful trip's ahead / We get dressed as ghosts / With sheets taken from the bed... We are strangers to ourselves." On "Pups to Dust," Brock contemplates existence as he explains, "We don't belong here / We were born here," and he mocks "Western concerns" in "The Best Room."
Some of the album's most pointed critiques relate to environmentalism and mankind's place on planet Earth. On "Lampshades On Fire," Brock sings, "Spend some time, float in outer space / Find another planet, make the same mistakes / Our mind's all shattered when we come and go / Hoping for the scientists to find another door." Similarly, on "Coyotes," Brock sings, "Mankind's behavin' like some serial killers / Giant ol' monsters afraid of the sharks."
The wonder and beauty of nature is tempered by pessimism about humanity on "The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box" as Brock sings, "The world's an inventor / With its work crawling, running, squirming 'round / Trees drop colorful fruits / Directly into our mouths / The world's an inventor / We're the dirtiest thing it's thought about / And we really don't mind." Toward the end of the album, "God is an Indian and You're an Asshole" is a humorous take on the dire implications of living in a world where the environmentally responsible natives were conquered and pushed out, leaving modern society full of "assholes" that don't intend on changing their ways.
Taking all that into consideration, the album cover takes on a deeper significance. The cover features an image of the Venture Out RV Resort in Mesa, Arizona, a neighborhood laid out in a circular format, demonstrating how society forces man-made structure and order on an environment. A change in perspective shows something from the sky that is completely different than how we may have perceived it to be from the ground. The image could be seen as a microcosm of society: modern and beautiful, but perhaps a bit unsettling.
Brock steps back from the cynicism and shows his sentimental side on "Ansel," a Caribbean-inflected tune about his last memories of his brother whose life was taken in an avalanche. For more personal insight on the album from Brock himself, check out the Strangers To Ourselves Track-By-Track Commentary that was released on Spotify.
"One thing that we consistently do is inconsistently write types of songs. There’s no one way about it for us," Brock said in a recent interview with Newsweek. While remaining true to their "consistently inconsistent" identity over the past 20 years, the Washington indie rockers explore new electronic territory on this record.
If you go back to We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank and Good News for People Who Love Bad News, you'll notice how there is a balance of slow songs and uptempo dancey rock songs. The same is true of this album, but the band have taken their electronic experimentations to the next level. The album's first single, "Lampshades On Fire," is an infectious track with a reggae vibe eerily similar to Maroon 5's "One More Night." Elsewhere, the industrial electronic rock of Nine Inch Nails can be heard on "Pistol," and "Wicked Campaign" is full of airy synths that are a fresh change of pace.
It's clear that Brock doesn't believe in rushing quality work. From the eight year gap between albums along with the release date being pushed back from March 3rd to March 17th, he was asked by The Wall Street Journal if he's ever released a record "that couldn't be any better":
No. The difference between how I approach putting out a record and how I think most people do is that I actually believe that the people who put time into listening to it matter every bit as much as the time that I put into it. As frustrating as it is to not have a record come out, I have to make sure that it’s worth putting out. I have to be trying to say something, for one. I have to not oversell what I’m trying to say. I can’t “Bono” it.
With Strangers to Ourselves, Modest Mouse have delivered an incredible album that works on many levels. With cheerful confidence, the band marches on through parties and funerals with disco rockers and spiritual hymns -- ending with the somber meditative "Of Course We Know." The lyricism, musicality, and daring nature of this record make it a rewarding listen, time and time again.
For Modest Mouse's latest music, news, and tour dates, check out their Zumic artist page.