Over the past month, Modest Mouse has released two singles off of their highly anticipated upcoming album, Strangers to Ourselves. It has been nearly eight years since the release of their last album, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, which was either Modest Mouse’s best album or worse album depending on who you ask. Naturally, there was a lot of excitement and anxiety over the direction Modest Mouse would take with this next album, which warrants us to take a closer look at the releases.
Lampshades on Fire
Released in mid-December of 2014, “Lampshades on Fire” felt like a portal back to 2007, when Modest Mouse released We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. This was clearly indicated by the opening “mmmBa- ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-da-ra”, something that would be highly unexpected in albums like The Lonesome Crowded West or This is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing To Think About, both re-released earlier in 2014. A slick drum lead-in breaks the song out into a flurry of activity, headed by Isaac Brock’s vocals and accompanied by a booming bass, pulsing drum-beat, and a guitar wailing and bending notes that has characterized Modest Mouse’s sound since the release of “Dramamine” about 20 years ago. Brock’s vocals during the verse are as shout-y, quirky, and impassioned as ever. Every now and then between verses he will adopt a throaty singing tone to deliver a line (“We’re all going/we’re all going”). This brings us to our next point: lyrics. Although musically Modest Mouse has gone through many stylistic changes, Isaac Brock’s promise to deliver lyrics with substance has been consistent through the decades. The opening verse leads us to believe this song will be about a common Modest Mouse motif, the pointlessness of life and being trapped in meaningless repetition: “Well the lampshades on fire when the lights go out/ The room lit up and we ran about/ Well this is what I really call a party now/ Packed up our cars, move to the next town”. However, as the song goes we find that “Lampshades on Fire” is not simply a diagnoses of our instant-gratification seeking culture, but also a warning as to how this can impact the world we live in: “Spend some time to 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 globe”. This environmentalist notion seems to be further supported when looking at “Coyotes”. Overall the song was slightly underwhelming, but Modest Mouse does a decent job of having the song highly accessible while maintaining their integrity. The song felt very safe, as if the intention was for people to instantly feel appeal towards it from its resemblance to We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. However, Brock states in Pitchfork’s documentary The Lonesome Crowded West that he believes in making each album different from its predecessors, so with that in mind I do not think we have to worry about an unoriginal album.
In the song “Trailer Trash”, it feels as though Isaac Brock is sitting in a chair across the room, pouring out his innermost reflections right in front of you. In “Coyotes” Brock gets up from that chair and is now speaking softly directly in your ear, similar to the level of intimacy from “Little Motel”. The song was released earlier this week on January 20th along with an interesting music video, which is apparently based on a true story of a coyote hopping onto train in Portland. The song opens with a delicate guitar line which is promptly joined by Brock’s vocals and a simple drumbeat, where Brock’s light and bouncy singing actually reminds you of a coyote tip-toeing in the snow after dark. In this song he laments the plight of the coyotes, who are forced to live in nature devoid of the vibrancy it once had: “Coyotes tip-toe in the snow after dark/ At home with the ghosts in the national parks”. Brock points out that it is mankind’s doing, on account of its serial-killer-like behavior: “Mankind’s behavin’ like some serial killers”. The light, but jerky waltz is occasionally accompanied by an electric guitar riff or banjo line, but then it suddenly breaks out into a fluid and open chorus, where Brock’s vocals almost get lost in a sea of ambient guitars and background vocals. The process repeats all over again, and after the second chorus, the song breaks down into an instrumental section, coinciding to the point in the music video where the coyote closes its eyes and heartbreakingly reminisces on being able to prance freely through the green forests surrounding Portland. After the third chorus, the flowing sound quality of the chorus is maintained into a section dense with electric guitar, synth, and anthem-like choral singing. Here Brock points out the hypocrisy of our attitudes towards nature, simultaneously destroying nature and saying how “we’re in love with all of it”. Far less intricate than “Lampshades on Fire”, I feel like this song was able to do a lot more with a lot less. The chorus and outro are particularly captivating musically, which does a great job of bringing across the message and emotion of the song.
Seeing the common motif of man’s apathetic/irresponsible attitude and self-indulgence destroying the world around us, I am excited to see what the rest of the album has in store. What made albums like The Moon and Antarctica, The Lonesome Crowded West, and even to an extent the compilation album Building Nothing Out of Something so enthralling and captivating was not just the musical ingenuity of each album, but also how each album seems to tackle common ideas and themes that can be incredibly insightful. I am hopeful that this next album can pick up that trend. Musically, I have yet to hear anything significant from these releases that I have not been exposed to already in Modest Mouse’s 20 year discography, so we will have to wait and see if they bring any new ideas on March 3rd when Strangers to Ourselves is scheduled to come out.