Located on the slopes of Mount Parnassus in Delphi of Ancient Greece stood the Temple of Apollo, a shrine dedicated to the chief virtues of knowledge and wisdom. Carved into the stone above the grand entrance – under which passed emperors, military leaders and esteemed theologians – was the enigmatic aphorism ‘know thyself’.
The phrase was considered a long-established wisdom by the philosophical heavyweights of the ancient world, including Socrates, Plato, and Xenophon. Why would we pursue the irrelevant, Socrates held, when we don’t yet understand the nature of ourselves?
This same line of thinking forms the central premise of Modest Mouse’s excellent new album ‘Strangers To Ourselves’. Bedecked in singer Isaac Brock’s characteristic cryptic verse, these fifteen tracks mock a civilisation teetering on the precipice of disaster. The worst thing of all for Brock is the simple fact that this is a self-induced catastrophe, an imminent calamity of our own creation – hastened by a generation of nonchalant consumers now strangers to their inner being.
If that sounds ponderous on paper, the results on record are anything but. ‘Strangers To Ourselves’ boasts a raft of furiously energetic tracks in which the cascading rhythms and uplifting instrumentation deliberately belie the dark themes explored, whether it’s the Western world’s trifling concerns in the face of impending ecological disaster (‘The Best Room’), humanity’s blasé depletion of Earth’s finite resources (‘Lampshades On Fire’), or our indifference towards the diminishing beauty of the planet that spawned us (‘The Ground Walks, With Time In A Box’).
In the hands of a less able lyricist this juxtaposition of light and dark wouldn’t work, but Brock is on fine form throughout, injecting tracks with his meld of dark humour and pathos (‘Coyotes’), his madcap blend of symbolism and allegory (‘Lampshades On Fire’), or hypnotic cryptic philosophy (‘Of Course We Know’).
His inspired wordplay is consistently great and occasionally brilliant. ‘Lampshades On Fire’ sets mankind’s downward trajectory against a symbolic backdrop of unquenchable revelry “‘Shaved off my eyebrows when I fall to the ground/ So I can’t look surprised right now”), whilst ‘The Best Room’ boasts superbly wry ruminations on humanity’s casual alarm at Earth sputtering its last breath. Its greatest line would be laugh-out-loud funny if it wasn’t so intensely tragic: “We all signed the card/ Get well but don’t you try too hard”.
Over the course of fifteen tracks Modest Mouse swerve from one style to the next, a routine that’s mirrored by Brock’s vocal range, which can be understated and introspective or impassioned and menacing. ‘Sugar Boats’ is a boisterous, barnyard stomp; ‘God Is An Indian and You’re An Asshole’ provides a few brief moments of redneck campfire balladry; and ‘Wicked Campaign’ toys with shades of synth pop.
The aptly titled ‘Pistol’ constitutes the album’s only misfire – its brash, mutant form of hip-hop buckling under the weight of its off-kilter ambitions. Brock’s message is clear and constant, though: a series of perverse and humorous sermons about spitting in the unforgiving face of Mother Earth.
The band are careful not to overdo the malaise and misery, holding back the deep brooding for the two moody, melancholic gems that bookend the album. The title track combines mournful strings, forlorn fretwork and a fiercely despondent vocal, and serves as a partner in terms of pace and temperament with final track – and album highlight – ‘Of Course We Know’. Adorned with obscure philosophical verse and smattered in subtle psych-tinged effects, the track finds Brock contemplating not only death and god, but the death of god.
After fourteen tracks concerned with the sins and woes of mankind, Brock comes to a realisation that humanity’s only hope can come from beyond the boundaries of the world, and demands the sacrifice of the soul of the Almighty himself (“Lord lay down your own damn soul!”) Brock’s message is as clear as it is bleakly heretical – the sacrifice of the Son of God apparently changed nothing, and without outside intervention we’re doomed.
PUBLISHED: CLASH MAGAZINE – MARCH 2015