Modest Mouse’s 22-year career to date is something of a Cinderella story. Despite a frontman in throaty philosopher Isaac Brock who sounds like Tom Waits shouting into a wood-chipper; despite a consistently wonky sound that’s evolved from awkward fuzzbox pop (2004’s ‘Good News For People Who Love Bad News’) to sea-shanty concept albums about drowned sailors (2007’s ‘We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank’); and despite the gloomy, fatalist streak to their lyrics, the Washington scrappers return from an eight-year break a weirdly mainstream concern. Their songs have been covered on American Idol. They’re regular festival headliners in the US. And ‘We Were Dead…’ – featuring the writing talents of Johnny Marr, who’s since left the band – was a number one hit on the US Billboard chart, selling over 500,000 copies in the US alone.
New album ‘Strangers To Ourselves’ seems determined to challenge that status, delivering some of their most brilliantly deranged moments yet. From grizzled, slap-bass disco freakouts (‘The Ground Walks, With Time In A Box’) to campfire lullabies (‘God Is An Indian And You’re An Asshole’) it’s an impressively unpredictable record that veers down wildly different paths, in ways no previous Modest Mouse album has dared. Brock’s lyrics remain the same: dense thickets of imagery and introspection (“Another branch on the tinder-bound tree/Birds flying lower, lookin’ downwards to feed”, he sings over tender acoustic guitar on ‘Coyotes’) but otherwise ‘Strangers…’ is an adventurous reinvention.
Not all the risks come off. The curiously named ‘Pistol (A Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996)’ is a twisted, ill-advised parody of Gwen Stefani chart hip-hop, which sees Brock booming “Why don’t you come to my room and clean my pistol?” But after two decades, what matters is that Modest Mouse are still taking those risks. ‘Strangers…’ doesn’t pack the emotional punch of their classic albums, but there’s something laudable about its genre-hopping loopiness. Their Cinderella story just got a surreal new chapter.