Isaac Brock sounds strangely detached from this, his band’s fifth album. At first, I wasn’t sure what the problem was. It sounds convincingly enough like Modest Mouse on the surface. The quirky, off-kilter guitars are as jittery as ever. And Brock’s guttural wail is, perhaps, even testier than usual. So what’s the problem? Well, this band is in a hugely uncomfortable position. The success of “Float On” from its last record, Good News for People Who Love Bad News, set the commercial bar at an unrealistic level. That song was a fluke, but I’m afraid the band’s record company thinks there’s plenty more where that came from. But Brock is hesitant to give it to them. Therein lies the problem.
We Were Dead before the Ship Even Sank doesn’t connect on the same level that any other Modest Mouse record does. Brock’s lyrics have always been a scrambled mass of clever wordplay and awkward puns, yet somehow they could always strike a nerve. Now he seems to be going through the motions. The lyrics mine the same territory on a thematic level- an OCD obsession with death has always pervaded Brock’s sphere of influence, but this time it’s sort of haphazardly set on a ship. The first single “Dashboard” is catchy and awkward and strange. It represents the delicate balance the whole record tries too hard to maintain: success without compromise. Brock wants the song to be infectious enough to please the clueless corporate suits yet weird enough to hold onto the die-hards.
This is practically an impossible feat. Few bands in history have ever been able to maintain a creative ascendance while retaining mass popularity. I can think of only two: The Beatles and Radiohead- The Beatles obviously the better example. Modest Mouse may have sold a lot of copies of Good News, but I’d be willing to bet you could find more than a few copies in the used bin as soon as the pop kids realized the rest of it didn’t sound like “Float On.” The same thing happened with Blur’s self-titled 1997 record because of “Song 2.”
The addition of Johnny Marr from The Smiths is a popular talking point, and on paper it is an exciting development for Modest Mouse. But, Marr’s presence on this record is so subtle one would be hard-pressed to know it was he who even played on it. The tight crystalline pop of his past never once rears its head. But Marr is a consummate professional, having blended into the woodwork on a number of high profile gigs from The The to the Talking Heads. Brock was probably not unaware of the potential press gushing that would and has inevitably taken place. I’m not accusing the man of being selfishly opportunistic, but he’s not an idiot, either. Since you know Marr is in the mix, though, the guitar dueling can be thrilling.
Brock pushes the limits of his wildly pugnacious pop sensibilities, especially on “March into the Sea” and “Parting of the Sensory”, the latter of which is unquestionably exciting as it climaxes in a rush of strings, rolling snare, and Brocks’ repeated threat of coffin theft. The aforementioned “Dashboard” as well as “Florida” and “Missed the Boat” serve as his potential commercial penance. Not that any of them is bad, though “Missed the Boat” errs on the side of mundanity, despite James Mercer of The Shins’ fine back-up vocals.
All of the songs on We Were Dead are solid for different reasons; they just sound at times like a band dressed up as Modest Mouse might be playing them.