Modest Mouse goes pop. Does that phrase scare you? Or at the very least make you feel slightly uncomfortable?
Over the course of nearly 30 years, Modest Mouse were iconoclastic to the core. The heroes of the Pacific Northwest as indie rock began to evolve past its grungy reputation throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, the band evolved from the rough-hued beauty of The Lonesome Crowded West to the surprising mid-2000s mainstream success of Good News for People Who Love Bad News through the jam-packed and newly star-studded line-up of We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank as they continuously followed their muse through whatever strange corners it took them.
Their last album, 2015’s Strangers to Ourselves, was mostly a case of the band resting on their laurels. Singles like ‘Lampshades on Fire’ and ‘The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box’ sounded like they were trying to be ‘Float On’ again, while ‘Shit in Your Cut’ and ‘God Is an Indian and You’re an Asshole’ attempted to painfully replicate the subversive wit that used to come so easily to them.
As if sensing that putting out an entire album on cruise control was probably a bad thing, Modest Mouse seems to have overcompensated in the other direction with The Golden Casket, which tries its absolute damnedest to sound like anything but a Modest Mouse album.
The baroque elements and playful interplay between musicians that made past MM albums so joyous are still around, but they seem to be filtered through a new M.O. that includes quasi-funk and heavily-reverberated synthesizers that buzz and whir in a confusing sludge. The stadium ready choruses feel vacuous and unearned, like on ‘Walking and Running’, while following track ‘Wooden Soldiers’ takes a full 180 degree turn into minimalist and creepy aggression with random noises and sampled percussion creating a fully unsettling atmosphere.
So The Golden Casket isn’t a guitar album, so what? Good on these guys for wanting to shake up the formula and be a different kind of band after nearly three decades. But variety isn’t a virtue simply because you decide to embrace it. Most of The Golden Casket is just listless and meandering. Not uninspired, but just mostly unfocused.
It reminds me a lot of Car Seat Headrest’s Making a Door Less Open, another respectably defiant album that rejects the elements that made the band so popular in favour of electronic eclecticism and modern technology. I have the same feelings about both albums: grudging respect, attempted appreciation, general confusion, and eventual exhaustion.
As we get the home stretch of songs like ‘Never Fuck a Spider on the Fly’ and the new wave jaunt ‘Japanese Trees’, you should win a prize for sticking around this long. And there is a prize: ‘Back to the Middle’ is actually an incredibly rewarding and fulfilling album closer. It’s too bad that it ends an album that doesn’t exactly deserve it.
The main problem with The Golden Casket is that it sacrifices the elements that made Modest Mouse a band worth obsessing over once upon a time. It’s not that they can’t be a band who fucks with their own style, it’s just that they need to do it with a greater attention to detail than they do on The Golden Casket.