Fans of Modest Mouse are a passionate bunch, forever engaged in a heated debate about which of the band’s albums is best. The early-adopters swear by Lonesome Crowded West, while the younger devotees think Good Newsfor PeopleWho Love Bad News is a masterpiece. I’ve always been partial to The Moon and Antarctica, which for me strikes the perfect balance between the frantic, youthful quality of their earlier work, and the slightly more polished and subdued feel of what was to come. In fact, I think it probably had more would-be hit singles than Good News, which would eventually prove to be their ticket to mainstream success.
But now, with the release of We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, one is smacked upside the head with the realization that all this debate has been about a series of records that, for the most part, vary only slightly from one another. Modest Mouse has become one of those bands like Built To Spill or even, before their recent breakup, Sleater Kinney — a band that really is remarkably unique, but has been doing its thing for so long that, unless you can count yourself as an obsessed, hardcore fan, it becomes difficult to find anything particularly noteworthy about their newer material. And after a while all that sameness starts to become off-putting, at first only in theory but eventually to the point where listening becomes a tedious chore.
What makes it particularly bothersome in the case of Modest Mouse and their new record is that there was every reason to think they’d be switching things up a bit. In a ridiculous turn of events, Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr wound up joining the band last year — an impossible dream come true for music nerds everywhere, like a fantasy baseball team taking the field in real life.
Yet Marr’s presence is felt only marginally on We Were Dead, which is a letdown, obviously, and really, a senseless waste of resources, even though, it should be noted, his restraint and willingness to assimilate quietly has somehow made him seem even cooler. His acoustic strumming does manage to creep to the forefront occasionally, and it’ll put a smile on the face of anyone who’s ever cried or danced along to the Smiths. But Isaac Brock is still the main attraction here, leading his band through fourteen songs that he could’ve written at any point between 1994 and today.
‘Dashboard’ is the first single, and while it’s unlikely that it will match the freakish success of ‘Float On’, it’s easily one of the most rewarding tracks on the record. It’s got everything you’ve come to expect from your favorite Modest Mouse songs: a guitar part so funky most bands would never be able to pull it off; a quirky, complex vocal melody, and a vast, attention-grabbing dynamic range.
Much of the rest of the record — which, like every other Modest Mouse record, come to think of it, is too long by approximately twenty percent — comes off as filler. ‘Fire it Up’ fails to obey its own command, plodding along at an annoyingly moderate tempo, as do ‘Parting the Sensory’ and ‘Little Motel’.
Then, on the other side of the spectrum, you’ve got no shortage of songs where Brock’s vocal style crosses over from endearingly offbeat to unforgivably irritating, as if he’s seeking to make up for a lack of sufficient melodies by singing and screaming in various funny voices. The album-opening ‘March Into the Sea’ gets off to a promising start, until you reach the chorus and realize, holy shit, this actually sort of sounds like that song ‘Asshole’ Dennis Leary used to perform. Even ‘Fly Trapped in a Jar’, which is fairly enjoyable, sounds like it’s being sung by about a half dozen different totally crazy people.
It may seem unfair to suddenly fault Modest Mouse for doing the same things they’ve always done. But it’s also a compliment, albeit a completely backhanded one. People have fallen so hard for this band because they just might be legitimate American Originals, like Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen or R.E.M and, hell, even Wilco — artists who have lovingly and naturally developed their aesthetic to a point where they’re immediately recognizable, but then kept going, allowing, or even forcing themselves to grow and change and try new things, all the while maintaining the qualities that made them special in the first place. Isaac Brock and Modest Mouse established years ago that they’ve got the first part down. But unless they step up and push themselves a bit farther, any new material they release will be an annoyance and a constant reminder that they never cared to be anything more.