On the occasion of everyone getting excited for Modest Mouse’s first album in eight years, let’s recall that they were declining a lot before they even went on hiatus so maybe we should lower our collective expectations to Strangers to Ourselves as to not end up inevitably disappointed. Good News for People Who Love Bad News is where said decline started, a clear dropoff after the back-to-back greatness of Lonesome Crowded West and The Moon & Antarctica, where Isaac Brock’s years of substance abuse (discussed plainly on closer “The Good Times Are Killing Me”) finally caught up to his synapses and years of cigarette abuse finally caught up to his vocals. And though “You wasted life why wouldn’t you waste the afterlife” is a good line, it’s emblematic of how Isaac Brock has become someone you would likely have seen whole verses quoted on tumblr to someone whose mere one liners are worth retweeting.
Like, who knows why Isaac Brock and co thought it was a good idea to take the opening ten seconds of “This Devil’s Workday” and use it to announce their album, which is both annoying and doesn’t even segue into the next song. Who knows why there are interludes at all, on this album, actually, including “Milo” which sounds like the birth of a baby. Who knows why every time Isaac Brock adopts his more chaotic vocals, as on “Bury Me With It” or “Dance Hall” or “This Devil’s Workday,” it comes off as someone imitating Isaac Brock instead of the real deal. Who knows why “Blame It on the Tetons” goes on for more than 5 minutes. Who knows why I bothered making these past few lines seem like questions when they’re clearly statements.
All told, there is enough good stuff here for me to give it a B+, and the last thing I want to say about it before I talk about those songs is that when I moved into my university residence, I looked through my new roommate’s record collection to see if we would have anything in common and this was the only thing that slotted in the oblong center of the venn diagram that was our music tastes. He said it was his favorite Modest Mouse album and I questioned it, and I remember him saying “Naah” (with two a’s) and proceeding to basically list all the songs I’m going to talk about. We’re good friends now, even though he’s moved away, because music taste should have no bearing on friendships. Or relationships. Lord knows why some people thinks it should.
The good stuff: the atmosphere of “The World at Large,” even though I’ve always found that Isaac Brock’s voice sounds a little queer in how subdued it sounds compared to previous Modest Mouse ballads; there’s a sparseness that captures the “ice age” while the flute hook and backing vocals capture the “heat wave” all mentioned in the first four oxymoronic words; with a few couplets achieving the same effect, lyrically (“I like songs about drifters-books about the same / They both seem to make me feel a little less insane” and “The moths beat themselves to death against the lights / Adding their breeze to the summer nights”); the guitar alarm throughout “Bury With Me It” if you can ignore Isaac Brock; the lo-fi vocals during “Bukowski” that remind you of the Modest Mouse of old (and how the entire song is a setup for Isaac Brock to call God out for being a control freak is representative of what I meant before of how he’s been reduced from poet to one-liner); the off-kilter harmonies during the choruses of the punchey “Satin in a Coffin”; the melody throughout “Blame It on the Tetons”; how sad it is that the choruses of “The Good Times Are Killing Me” beg you to sing along to them; “Have one more, have twenty more “one more”’s; how “The World at Large,” unlike “Horn (Intro),” actually segues into “Float On” through its extended outro and namechecking “Float On” for good measure. I’m not convinced at all by “The Ocean Breathes Salty” because it feels like a self-conscious effort to recreate “Float On”; everything that happens is a little too on the nose, but I get its appeal.
And “Float On” is the album’s best song and the first Modest Mouse song I ever heard, complete with extremely likeable lyrics, the album’s catchiest hook and probably 2004’s most ubiquitous guitar riff … in North America, anyway. And there’s some extra details buried throughout, sound effects punctuating every other line in the second verse and backing vocals later; these might not add anything but definitely don’t detract from the song.
So yeah, a B+ for all of that, and also because the cover’s nice to look at the title’s nice to say aloud, but let’s not get our hopes up for the new one.