We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, the latest release from Modest Mouse, is certainly a departure from the unpolished, somber sound that the band is known for. The tracks are seeing a lot more production and, along with the addition of Smith’s guitarist Johnny Mar, the overall effect is almost light and airy rather than dark and brooding.
The signature vibrato-filled solos and stretched vocals are still present, but are sandwiched between bright phrases of rhythm guitar and drum beats that almost sound synthesized.
The change in sound is immediately present on the single “Dashboard.” Like “Float On” from 2004’s Good News for People Who Love Bad News, the song is upbeat and catchy, with hints of tropical flavor coming through in the background guitar work. The lyrics are nonsensical but fun (“We talked about nothing, which was more than I wanted you to know”), and the vocals of lead singer Isaac Brock are pushed by a swell of horns and pronounced drums. At first, the track can come off as almost too catchy, verging on pop, but as it progresses, the song manages to avoid losing too much of the band’s signature feel.
Notable on this album are the abrupt changes in tempo found on a number of tracks. Examples of this method are most prominent on the songs “Parting of the Sensory,” “Spitting Venom” and “Dashboard.”
Johnny Marr, not pictured above, made his debut on We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. He will also tour with the band.
“Spitting Venom,” in particular, begins with a simple acoustic, up-down strumming pattern accompanied only by Brock’s vocals. Eventually, a sparse electric guitar riff comes in from the background for a couple of measures and then drops out, returning the song to its original acoustic beginning. About 30 seconds later, the entire band comes crashing into the mix with drums and strings blazing, completely changing the feel, only to drop out a minute or two later and return the song to its initial acoustic feel. The method is both innovative and disorienting, especially considering that the sprawling eight-and-a-half-minute track length allows for quite a number of contrasting switch ups.
While it seems that Modest has succeeded in creating a comparable follow-up to Good News for People Who Love Bad News, the new album is not without its low points. The extra production works on some tracks, but on others it seems to take away from the scratchy, raw feeling that was present on The Moon and Antarctica and some points of Good News. Tracks like “Florida” and “Steam Engenius” seem out of place in comparison to the rest of the album, as well as to the previous work of the group.
In the end, longtime Modest Mouse fans may feel distanced from a group whose increasing popularity continues to influence their sound. After a couple of good listens, however it will be evident that the roots are still there; they’re just buried deep beneath the soil of a burgeoning fame.