“A Personal Confession: I Really ‘Missed the Boat’ on Strangers to Ourselves.”

Look, I’m gonna be honest, I just have to open by saying upon finally listening to multiple tracks on this album that “Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996)” is a song that will suck you in and spit you out a lean, mean, expressionist pop machine. “Pistol” is the centerpiece on the Mouse’s ’15 crooner (which yes I originally hated for exact reason of said crooning on the aching but hella-awkward opener) Strangers to Ourselves, the first ever Modest Mouse song to find the singer inside the perspective of another — in this case an armed rapist. To the credit of the critics which have bashed this song (both of them, Spin’s and Pitchfork’s, that I’ve read thus far), Modest Mouse is I believe an exceedingly difficult band to assess, and we’re living in a time in music when IT is very hard to assess, assimilate and evaluate, specifically what with our era being so digital and finding music listening experiences so multifarious (meaning possible and prevalent within so many different settings). By unleashing “Float on” on us, at all (as well as in my opinion “Gravity Rides Everything” and the entirety of the album The Moon & Antarctica), Brock, Inc. has already altered our conceptions of reality, to where, how could it be possible for individuals to thereafter aptly connect said catalyst to any set reality, whatsoever?
I have another, though, more grounded theory as to why “Pistol” has been so invariably bashed online, and it has to do with the imagery summoned by song titles, and the ensuing expectations the listener develops as a result. The reason I know this is a viable talking point is that when I saw that this squirrelly little ditty about halfway through was called “Coyotes,” after having initially had Better than Ezra’s Deluxe, which I consider a classic album (being a big ‘90s oaf that I am), in mind, I found the song disappointing, that is, more so than would have been the case ignorant of said song’s title. In this vein, it’s almost certain to me that when these critics see the title “Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996),” they lasso up a lot of images of action movies, something they likely hold dearly (for some reason), and so they need for the end result song to be in some way like a thrill ride, or even if it is (which I think “Pistol” is), their ability to discern this suffers from the unrealistic expectations connected to the cinema. Let’s face it, within the overall ranking of different uses for guns in our country, cinematic portrayal scores mightily against the dim enterprise of “personal protection.” In this way, I am indeed saying that assuming guns were used more for personal protection than they are, that is, by cooperative, logically minded individuals, then the overall conception of “Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996)” would be greatly ameliorated, as it would be transformed from something natural and everyday, which is to say, “boring,” into a tale of action.
To be honest, regarding my titular misstep here, I’d had my doubts from the start as to how Modest Mouse were going to fit into the contemporary 2015 landscape… let’s just say the “pop” realm of Taylor Swift and Carly Rae Jepsen wasn’t leaving much room for the ironic or the misfit, or the “drifter,” and Mac Demarco and Parquet Courts have never matched the Mouse’s energy, so it’s hard to compare them either. And basically, I checked out right when I heard Isaac Brock’s voice on the title track opener — I thought no way is he going to construe this naked weirdness into anything coherent. Now, mind-bogglingly, I have heard “Strangers to Ourselves” praised in reviews. The most troubling thing to me of all, though, without question, in my taking in of what little criticism I have of Strangers to Ourselves, is that the Spin writer seems either ambivalent to or ignorant of the fact that Brock on “Pistol” is actually exhibiting a third-party perspective here at all, not singing from a point of view meant to be his own. For all I know, the Spin critic could be likening the song to like some rap where the dude is being sexually promiscuous, a particularly plausible idea in light of how there’s Crown Royal on hand. Not only does he not comment on whether or not this ulterior character assumption was a good or bad idea, but he also fails to see the common Floridian thread in Modest Mouse established in part on “Florida” and “Truckers Atlas.” Also, as a semi-related aside, Florida is the number one state in America for sex offenses per capita. My other big pet peeve with the Spin review, along with how they call We Were Dead before the Ship Even Sank “middle-of-the-moat” and then attempt to emphasize the hype over Strangers to Ourselves (if their last album were that mediocre why would there now be a huge hype), is that they like the song “Lampshades on Fire,” which I found a very regular, safe radio rocker (they actually praise it for being what “we’ve come to expect,” which makes you wonder if they’re analyzing music or a combustion engine here). That is to say, “Float on” was definitively not what anybody expected, at all.
Now, getting back to my credit, which is something I enjoy getting back to, Strangers to Ourselves is a sequencing nightmare, all for reasons I’ve already listed. I think the best idea would have probably been to put “Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996)” second to last and then the title track last — the grimness of the former would resonate in people’s minds, but they’d be let down easy by the pastoral grace of “Strangers to Ourselves.” Also, the damaged, emotive qualities in Brock’s voice in the title track come across clearer, rather than just as a sort of attempted ironic awkwardness disguised as wimpiness, after the listener has heard a bulk of the album. “Lampshades on Fire” would actually make an excellent opener and then let’s go with the seam-strong, disco-y “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes”/“The View”-channeling “The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box” in the second position, so that right off the bat we actually establish a GROOVE, a level of energy, rather than trying to make these sweeping, poignant statements early on with lyrics, as if we’re some genius. If Brock had really been in such an ingenious state leading up to this madness, it wouldn’t have taken this long to come out. The band needs groove, the original garage-rock swagger of their first two albums, to succeed here, but this being said, I can’t emphasize enough that “Pistol” is a startling accomplishment — actually, placed toward the end of a conventional rock album, it would really shock people.
In other spots, on Strangers to Ourselves, the band sounds very, very much the result of some extensive Shins listening — he**, maybe Brock just had to take in Port of Morrow to really get his own songwriting show on the road. The relationship between these two bands definitely seems symbiotic at this point, but again, not only are the members getting older, but this scrappy, underdog pop is sort of antiquated (there’s almost no room for sense of humor in today’s music, aside from maybe in country), so when the end objective of these drunkards’ anthems seems so far-fetched, sometimes it can be hard to know exactly what to expect of these musicians in the first place. Anyway, I’d just picked up this Mike Doughty poetry book Slanky, found it awesome, and wondered why Brock hasn’t done the same thing, seeing as he’s obviously a reader and his band name is based on a Virginia Woolf short story. After hearing the lurid, wildly unpredictable innards of Strangers to Ourselves, however, I am wondering this no more.

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