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 finally caught up to his synapses and years of cigarette abuse finally caught up to his vocals, and that decline only continued with We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. And though “It honestly was beautifully bold, like trying to save an icecube from the cold” 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.
Surprisingly though, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank’s problems are a lot harder to pinpoint than they were on Good News because it’s clear that they’re trying as hard as they were on The Moon & Antarctica, probably in a desperate attempt to regain the hardcore anti-selling out fans they lost when “Float On” was released. I mean, even “Dashboard,” a clear attempt at recreating “Float On,” is, like its predecessor, kind of deceiving; check out their live performance of the single on David Letterman to see what I mean. In addition to Jeremiah Green, they hire a second drummer (who switches to percussion when he’s not on drums but you can’t even hear him because he’s drowned out), a trumpeter (who they desperately needed a second one of because he’s drowned out) (the trumpet in the studio version is much clearer), and Isaac Brock switching between two microphones … because reasons!
And the rest of these songs follow suit. There are apparently two drummers throughout the record though really a drum machine would have sufficed, and like Good News, there are additional instruments everywhere, and unlike Good News, they re-adopt multipartite song structures in both “Florida,” “Parting of the Sensory” and “Spitting Venom” that they used to do; Isaac Brock does a spoken word performance on the second half of “Missed the Boat.” They hire Johnny Marr of the Smiths to add half-melodic half-twitchy guitar fills everywhere and they hire James Mercer of the Shins to add sunny backing vocals everywhere. And they tried to make a concept album before giving up halfway through (people were supposed to die of water-related deaths in every song as far as I can gather). But the problem is despite all this hard work, they sound generic as ever. And Isaac Brock keeps moving his voice (ie. “GIVE ME FORCED/FOREST HEALTH” on “March Into the Sea”) because I think deep down, he knew that he had to do something – anything – to remind us that they are Modest Mouse and not Lamp or Wrongband or whatever randomindierockbandnamegenerator.com spits out these days.
The good stuff: the first half of “Florida,” wherein James Mercer helps the song connect with a really catchy wordless vocal hook (the second half is just kind of loud and obnoxious); the second half of “Parting of the Sensory,” where everyone in the band starts dancing in eager anticipation and/or knowledge that they’re going to die soon; good fiddle in that part; “Missed the Boat,” where everything that happens happens for a reason; “Our ideas held no water but we used them like a dam”; “Little Motel,” whose twilight twinkles sounds remarkably like Radiohead and whose guitar solo is the only guitar solo on the album that matters; the opening few seconds of the incredibly overrated “Spitting Venom.”
And, actually, despite the fact that I wrote previously that “Dashboard” a clear re-write of “Float On,” I have no reservations: “Dashboard” is just as good. Not as famous because the guitar riff isn’t as momentous and because its much too wordy for the public ear, but like “Float On,” the lyrics are extremely likeable (about floating on again) and Isaac Brock shapes and releases them in catchy hook after catchy hook, but these lyrics are even more likable (“The dashboard melted, but we still have the radio”; “You told me about nowhere, well it sounds like someplace I’d like to go”; “The windshield was broken but I love the fresh air ya know”; “If the world don’t like us, it’ll shake us just like we were a cold”; and that’s just the first half of the song), and the hooks are even catchier. And on top of that, they throw everything they have at us: backing vocals that are a hook in and of themselves; aforementioned horns and un-aforementioned strings.
Regardless, their worst album. Let’s not get our hopes up for the new one.