Awaiting a comeback album from one of your favorite bands can be nerve-wracking. Your expectations are just too high, and there are just too many things that could go wrong.
The band could just try to sound exactly as they did before, effectively throwing in the towel. Yet another of your heroes has proven themselves unworthy of your devotion.
At the other extreme, the band could reinvent themselves completely. The reinvention might work, or it might not. Either way, you are forced to confront the fact that you will never hear new material from the band as you knew it. Some pleasures are pleasures that you can never repeat.
Modest Mouse may not have broken up, but with the six and a half years that have passed since their last release (the EP “No One’s First and You’re Next”), the newly released “Strangers to Ourselves” feels like a comeback nonetheless.
While it is not a masterpiece on the level of Modest Mouse’s past three LPs, “Strangers to Ourselves” is a fine album that succeeds in walking the tightrope that is “familiar yet new.”
Still present are the superficially juvenile themes that give way to frightened reflections on the human condition. Still present to a great degree is the off-the-rails feeling, though these songs are somewhat more subdued than their predecessors. Much of the album’s newness lies in its particulars.
“Strangers to Ourselves” is Modest Mouse telling a ghost story, and the sound is tailored to that theme. In general, the music is less screechy and more bassy. There’s less screaming and more snarling.
Other than that, the sounds on the album are delightfully varied, from the simultaneously sweet and eerie strings of the title track to the romping guitar riffs of “The Ground Walks with Time in a Box” to the demented keyboards of “Sugar Boat.” (Both of these are standout tracks, by the way.)
Modest Mouse’s production values continue to increase, and listening to “Strangers” with headphones will definitely reward with new discoveries. I like to imagine Isaac Brock staying after hours in the studio, channeling his late-night paranoia into the layer after eerie layer that goes into these tracks.
In the end, it’s a handful of weak tracks that keeps “Strangers” from joining the canon of Modest Mouse’s best albums. “Pistol,” for instance, takes up the story of spree killer Andrew Cunanan with a series of bass-heavy vocal and instrumental distortions that makes it sound more farcical than dark. All told, the song comes across as the misguided attempts of an eighth grader who wants to do dark humor, but can’t get over how funny they think it is to shout, “Cooooooccccaaaaiiinnnneeee.”
In other cases, Modest Mouse’s sins are less dramatic. “The Tortoise and the Tourist,” for instance, attempts to harken back to Modest Mouse’s earlier recordings with its sung-call, shouted-response chorus. But in the end the throwback feels worn and half-hearted, and the heavy-handed lyrics don’t help.
Still, it is a rich and rewarding album that warrants repeated listens. Modest Mouse, you didn’t disappoint.