Modest Mouse’s spontaneous burst into fame was totally bizarre for a brief period of time after the 2004 release of “Good News for People Who Love Bad News.” The album – a swirl of energetic, emotional, even pretty-sounding indie rock – set itself apart, for better or worse, from any of the darker releases since their early ’90s inception.
ALBUM: “We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank”
Depending on whether you asked wide-eyed newbie fans or rabid longtime devotees, “Good News” was either an odd and beautiful masterpiece or an utter travesty. Despite the initial butting of heads, however, one thing was immediately clear: As evident by the glittering chart-topper “Float On,” the album was ubiquitous. In fact, it was a downright mainstream hit that wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
And even the stubborn eventually came around because the band still was, for the most part, the same juvenile, aggressive Modest Mouse, but with a refreshingly sunnier disposition. “Float On” certainly lamented of the daily blues, but it managed to offer a genuine hope for something better with its lively, infectious pop chorus. The frantic anxiety of old still lurked just beneath the surface, but there was a new, uncommon confidence in both sound and attitude that most listeners eventually couldn’t get enough of.
Fast forward a few years, when the respective dusts of hype and backlash have settled, when Modest Mouse has finally released the follow-up to such a career-altering collection of songs – their fifth studio album “We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank.”
This album should’ve been great, right? Jeremiah Green, the band’s original drummer, has returned after his battle with depression in an institution. Then, Johnny Marr (yes, as in the ex-Smiths guitarist) jumped in as a full-time member after he and frontman Isaac Brock began compiling efforts on early tracks.
So why, then, does Modest Mouse sound so damn pissed? Success, acclaim, a reunion, a new talent gained – all of these things would usually suggest something other than a dense, nearly impenetrable record that makes its already wildly accessible predecessor seem like Coldplay in comparison.
If one is hoping for a return to form, or, if nothing else, maybe Marr’s stamp of smart gloom-pop song craft, they’ll have to visit elsewhere. “We Were Dead” bears no such cross. Instead, it means to be as difficult as possible despite all the pop possibilities cushioning it. You get the sense that Modest Mouse is suffering from an identity crisis, attempting to flinch and lash out in their spotlight while the music that results – fraught, frantic, formulaic – says otherwise.
Most songs, in fact, bear an insipid sameness. Every beat is bouncy and muscular and at the same frenzied tempo. Each guitar pick is stiff and skeletal. Every note from Brock’s mouth is uttered with such a precise drunken slur, he now seems to have unintelligible blabbering down to a science.
That’s the big problem. Nearly everything sounds angry and raw, but still somehow rote. The band seems strangely furious with the latest installment of their major-label trinity of albums, but expresses it with a slickly-produced sound that isn’t effective in the slightest. All sinister qualities seem too polished, too expected. It’s a riot, but a rehearsed one, and what it’s against isn’t clear.
Shins frontman James Mercer lends souring background vocals on “We’ve Got Everything,” “Missed the Boat” and “Florida,” adding a touch of soft prettiness to the disc’s ugly yelping. Brock is certainly capable of matching his vocal partner’s abilities (we’ve heard it before), but seems dead set on proving how harsh he’s remained even in the face of stardom. Again, it’s muddled by the overly desperate attempt to prove otherwise: “I was born in a factory / far away from the milk and tea / oh, what’s the use?”
Hey guys! Hey! Over here! I swear I’m still authentic. See? Thrash! Rage! Angst!
Even with a song called “Spitting Venom,” the lyrics do anything but; instead, they’re overly simplistic and repetitive. Constant commands like “let it all drop / let it all drop” and “fire it up / fire it up” don’t really make much sense, and are irritating for anyone used to Brock’s normally masterful, if not scathingly detailed, means of storytelling.
The first single “Dashboard,” among the weakest of the bunch, doesn’t show up until the second to last track as if trying to hide its sheepish attempts at radio-friendliness beneath the rest of the album’s overt animosity. Unlike “Float On,” it highlights nothing but the album’s own confusion with where it wants to go.
The final track “March into the Sea,” one of the few stand-alones, is an acceptable conclusion thanks to the pleasing undercurrent of violin and Brock’s suddenly poetic lyrics, but the mood is killed when he claims they should enjoy the ride because “we’ve yet to crash.” Well, before that point, actually, the album already has.