Modest Mouse Play Against Their Strengths on 'The Golden Casket'

Modest Mouse Play Against Their Strengths on 'The Golden Casket'
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Singer-guitarist Isaac Brock has long run a unique tightrope act in the singular little sphere of indie rock that Modest Mouse have carved out. His vocals can take on a sharp yelp ("Do the Cockroach"), and at other times are delivered through gnashed teeth ("Lampshades on Fire"), but he also can croon with a quasi-country affectation when the song calls for it ("Float On"). Performances always balance ferocity and intimacy. But in 2021, how much demand is there for the barks and whispers of turn-of-the-millennium guitar music? Modest Mouse tiptoe the line between channelling noxious masculine tropes and satirizing them with biting irony. Their best efforts use rage to reflect inward with brutal honesty. Profound, devastating sadness is often masked in their loudest moments. Six years after the excellent Strangers to Ourselves, Modest Mouse return with an album that varies so wildly in performance, arrangements and quality that one wonders whether these songs were meant to form an emotionally cohesive whole at any point.

The Golden Casket is uneven, as Brock and the band seem to hide from their most dangerous impulses. Despite wanting to create more hopeful, inspiring music, Brock can't help but pen dour dystopian songs like "Wooden Soldiers" then pair them with plunky, child-friendly tunes like "The Sun Hasn't Left Yet," possibly the worst song in the band's catalogue. Modest Mouse are familiar with quieter moments, but there's far too much going on here — as if The Moon & Antarctica would've sounded better with strings, choir vocals, orchestral percussion and xylophones all crashing together? Unlike some of the other intriguing experiments here, the chipper "The Sun Hasn't Left Yet," sounds over-baked and bored with its tired copy-paste structure. This song has "modern rock radio single" written all over from the moment Isaac Brock churns out its empty chorus: "I don't know you / You don't know me."

Things get back on track with the fiery "Never Fuck a Spider on a Fly," where absolutely everything buzzes and crackles. Brock has always known how to spit a curse word to achieve maximum potency, and it works here. There's that masculinity tightrope walking again.

These more menacing elements of Modest Mouse remain at the forefront until the masterful final track, "Back to the Middle." It sounds so different from every other song on Casket, an album that already has a noticeable cohesion problem, that it begs the question whether it was even written or recorded in the same timeframe as the other pieces. Pairing bestial instrumentals with Brock's most fragile and introspective performance so far, it all comes together here. He's bruised, raw, and carries with him the same Midwest and blue-collar machismo that poisons so many relationships, but he knows it and wants to work on it. "Back to the Middle" can't save this album, but it comes close. Perhaps it may point to Modest Mouse's future, and to a more stripped-back sound that suits them better. (Epic)