Album Review: Modest Mouse – “The Golden Casket”

Posted: by The Editor

Two things can be true: Modest Mouse are one of the greatest living indie rock bands, and their legacy feels entirely combustible. It’s been a strange decade and a half to be a fan of one of the most singular rock bands ever to cross over into the mainstream: founding member Eric Judy left the band, they became an unreliable stadium rock act, there were (apparently) those unreleased collaborations with Big Boi, they reissued their whole catalog, and there was the self-produced Strangers To Ourselves, an album that, regardless of where you fell on the spectrum of Modest Mouse fandom, was an obvious low for the band.

The years since No One’s First, And You’re Next have instilled a compounding, and not entirely unwarranted, amount of doubt amongst fans—to read that their latest, The Golden Casket, is only their sixth proper studio album seems confounding given how wide ranging their career has been, but it also further highlights the warped sense of time following the band. Even if it was unspoken, the widening gap spent reckoning with their pop appeal and wrestling with how the band was perceived in the period after their breakthrough radio hits said a lot about how people engaged with their music at large. For some, Modest Mouse were well past their prime by the time Strangers To Ourselves was released, the sunny pop appeal of “Float On” an early warning flag of change that (*or just “change to come”*) was to come; for others, hearing Brock’s muddied production and directionlessness on songs like “Pistol (A. Cunanan, MIami, FL. 1996)” or “Wicked Campaign” was a signal that the frontman’s stranglehold on the band had grown too strong.

Isaac Brock affirmed something key leading up to The Golden Casket: “I don’t know that I would have continued making music if I and Eric and Jeremy hadn’t managed to come up with a song like ‘Dramamine.’ I’ve never been able to make another one like that. I’ve never heard another one like that. I love that song.” Hearing Brock acknowledge the power of “Dramamine,” perhaps the band’s most defining sonic statement 25 years later, is a weight lift walking into the band’s latest. Brock bluntly acknowledging that his best work is perhaps behind him signals in some ways that it’s okay to finally view Modest Mouse through the lens of a legacy touring act rather than a steadfast creative powerhouse, a notion that seemed distant during their last album cycle.

It’s through this line of thinking that The Golden Casket succeeds, certainly a step up sonically from Strangers To Ourselves, even if the messiness sometimes endures. Brock, per a conversation with Zane Lowe, claims to have wanted to avoid guitars, on paper a surreal decision for a band with such a defining tone, but a choice that certainly seems to have given some fresh energy to the band. Producers Dave Sardy and Jacknife Lee are both prolific enough that they almost undoubtedly saved Brock from being his own worst enemy and making another Strangers To Ourselves, even if nothing here is as sonically raw or compelling as the early Modest Mouse records, nor as exploratory as The Moon & Antarctica. The Golden Casket ultimately feels like a more natural successor to the radio run we saw the band have in the 2000s—even in its diminished returns, the song selection and sequencing feel akin to We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank.

Like the singular nature of past singles “Lampshades on Fire” or “Dashboard,” “We Are Between” displays the band’s latter-day penchant for mainstream airplay and squeaky clean indie rock. “Float On” was always an accidental glitch in the matrix, but Brock’s ability to capture a catchy, hooky radio sound still reads as wildly left of center—that no one else could sound like Modest Mouse either as indie rock icons or as random pop stars is a fact that is rarely acknowledged by those offended by their mainstream turn. “We Are Between” is the album’s isolated attempt at a hit, whatever that means at this stage in their careers, and certainly in its starry chorus you can hear NBC sports telecasts throwing to break with it, or the bouncy instrumental closing out a trailer for the next coming-of-age “indie” film.

Elsewhere, there are certainly moments of pop friendliness—that playful, horn filled hook on “The Sun Hasn’t Left” is the band doing their surrealist version of the Dead’s “Touch of Grey,” the decidedly restrained and organ filled build on “Leave A Light On” a fun psych-lite earworm on one of the albums goofier tracks—but both singles are hardly crossover affairs. If anything, the slickness of those songs is a return to the 2000s era. Two of the more surreal sonic shifts on the album, “Walking and Running” and “Japanese Trees,” are punky rippers, the former a handclapping romp, the latter mixing a hard rock fury with a free falling chorus. Neither are “Shit Luck,” nor is opener “Fuck Your Acid Trip,” which acts as a fitting but flawed introduction to some of these fast, conventional rock elements, but each act as an overly palatable reminders that even within the Modest Mouse sound there are underdeveloped ideas to still explore.

For everything that feels slightly off, and certainly your mileage will vary based on your relationship to the band, The Golden Casket (in spite of that uneasiness) reinforces the notion that Modest Mouse are among the most idiosyncratic bands ever—there’s enough across the album to confidently say even in their legacy act period Brock and company are still unlike any other artist currently making music. While that whirring, kitchen-sink plod style of Strangers To Ourselves rears its head on some of the album’s filler (peaking with the stream-of-conscious dirge “Transmitting Receiving”), even the less striking songs harken back to the cosmic searching of Modest Mouse’s best 2000s work. Existential highlights “We’re Lucky” and “Lace Your Shoes” feature quiet, twinkling builds that would fit on parts of The Moon & Antarctica; “Never Fuck A Spider On The Fly” is the kind of bouncy oddity that would fit right at home as an overqualified b-side outtake on No One’s First, And You’re Next, a continuation of some of the low stakes fun they were having on those random 2020 singles like “Ice Cream Party;” closer “Back to the Middle” is as powerful a rock presence as you could hope for on an album where Brock wanted to avoid using guitars, a reassuring sendoff for the band. And throughout, Brock feels comfortable in his older age as a lyricist, still as surreal as ever but with moments of rare, grounded clarity.

The Golden Casket might not be a perfect Modest Mouse album, but after a decade of uncertainty it certainly offers a semblance of reassurance that might not have been there with regards to what this band would look like in decline. In an alternate universe, it’s the album that should have come after We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank, a half life compared to the magic that came during their prime years and subsequent pop stardom, but with enough zeal and gusto to feel like their legacy as a band was intact no matter what. Even if it might be preferred that Modest Mouse hang it all up tomorrow to rest on the laurels of a relatively spotless early career, The Golden Casket justifies Brock being a rock star for a little bit longer.

CJ Simonson | @CJsimonson

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