There's always been something more than a bit off-key about Modest Mouse. Back in 2004, the band's various rattling, careening aspects came together for a glorious three-and-a-half minute "Float On." But just as this band is way too good to be called a one-hit-wonder even in jest, there was something a little more appealing when the band just barely missed its mark - all the puzzle pieces didn't quite fit into a song. They had a way of sounding like a rusty old machine moments away from collapse; but collapse they never quite did. Maybe what made their imperfections so lovable was that their ambitions stretched farther than their musical capacity could take them. Their songs fell just short of masterwork, but were sometimes mouthwateringly close.
That's why it's a little disappointing to hear their sound more streamlined recently. Or at least that's what their latest single, "Dashboard," suggests. Luckily, it's not quite the case with the rest of their follow-up, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, a title so off-the-wall it promises more than any album could possibly answer with. But right out of the gate it offers the same acute lunacy that attracted fans to the band with "March Into the Sea," which sees frontman Isaac Brock singing and laughing like a wild mind downright broken with delirium.
We Were Dead shoves the listener down a flight of stairs and throws him a sarcastic Band-Aid when he hits the bottom. By the end, the listener will be clawing his way back up, asking for more. Brock sounds as manically sincere as ever - he sings like he's walking on hot coals - and the band thumps along behind him accordingly. It's impossible to pick out a song that doesn't fit right, because the album itself is a schizophrenic mess of sucker punches.
Critics have complained that the album is safer and more straightforward than its predecessors, but this couldn't be further from the truth. The album is unadulterated and brazen; it's not conventional, it's just not subtle. So rarely does this happen in popular music that it's apparently easy to misinterpret the event when it actually appears on a record. The only true blunder is "Little Motel," the obligatory "soft song" on the album. It stops Mouse's momentum dead in its tracks. Who decided ballads are mandatory by rock bands, anyway? Otherwise, though, We Were Dead is dizzying and chaotic, but still fresh. Even better, it manages to hone some absolutely infectious hooks without detracting from the band's characteristic eccentricities.
This is an interesting new attribute of Mouse's sound, but it works better than fans might think. The band really takes their unorthodox approach and spices it up with the oddest array of influences. "People as Places as People" snags the opening riff from, of all places, Tool's "The Patient." Brock and Co. also add the guitar candy of Franz Ferdinand on the jarring march of "Fly Trapped in a Jar" and "Invisible," and of The Killers on the dance pop number "Dashboard." It's really quite a miraculous achievement that the band has successfully integrated such varying sources into an already difficult style.
"Nothing ever went quite exactly as we planned/ Our ideas held no water but we used them like a dam," sings Brock on "Missed the Boat," and perhaps a more accurate self-reflection than has ever been uttered in a rock song. The Mouse's music isn't the kind that's created with success in mind - the band has stumbled upon theirs, but that hasn't weathered their potency in the least. If Brock's words are, in fact, a dam, the outfit has successfully withstood the tidal wave of fame. With We Were Dead, they are building an impenetrable monolith.