Isaac Brock has always been something of a doomsayer. The Modest Mouse leader has spent his career chronicling dissolution, ranging from environmental and cultural to personal, and his acerbic tone and the band’s catchy-abrasive musical arrangements have been a distinctive feature on the indie music landscape since the mid-’90s.
This time, though, he’s outmatched. Who wouldn’t be? The Golden Casket, Modest Mouse’s seventh studio album and first since 2015, is Brock’s attempt to wrestle with the deleterious effects of technology. That’s too vast a topic, as it turns out, and Brock has a hard time narrowing his focus into something manageable, and therefore meaningful. In fact, the song “Transmitting Receiving” finds Brock reciting a long list of stuff modified by technology, from home appliances to mustard seeds to dreams, and the list goes on long enough that you start to tune it out. Yes, technology affects everything we do, and even the food we eat, often in ways that suck. But maybe pick a narrower angle to explore? Fortunately, Brock breaks through the lengthening catalog with a refrain, singing, “Nothing in this world’s gonna petrify me,” which gives the song a sense of lift and movement. It also rings false.
Maybe Brock isn’t petrified, but he’s clearly off-balance, and so is much of The Golden Casket. In place of the sharp lines and hard angles of Modest Mouse’s best work, these 12 songs are often blurry and indistinct, and Brock trades brash lyricism for what sometimes resembles a defensive crouch. Rather than the “we’ll all float on”-style paeans to perseverance through the crummy twists that life delivers, he’s frequently retreating here, holding fast to smaller moments as if counting his blessings. “These are the stars and these are the seas / Well these are the places that we’re lucky just to be between,” he sings on “We’re Lucky,” where bursts of horns dress up an otherwise unassuming musical arrangement.
If that doesn’t sound much like the Brock of old, neither does “Lace Your Shoes,” a quiet, surprisingly affecting song that he sings to his kids, about the milestones children achieve, and the way they shift your perspective as a parent, whether you’re ready for it or (especially) not. “Things were hazy but that all stopped with you,” he sings, his double-tracked vocals backed with a percussive guitar line and distant keys.
Such a thoughtful sentiment seems like a sign of maturity from a singer who always came across as combative and ready to scrap. There are occasional echoes of that earlier attitude: Brock sounds restless, unsettled and pissed about it on “Wooden Soldiers,” which features a clanking guitar riff and heavy beat. It’s one of the most compelling songs on the album, in part because apart from the furious, driving “Japanese Trees,” there’s not much else like it. Most of the songs on The Golden Casket don’t sound like they’re of a piece, and while the album has its moments, an overall lack of cohesion means they quickly fade. Instead of wry fatalism and gnashing hooks, Modest Mouse too often sound here like they’re trying to quietly give up without disturbing anyone else, instead of taking us all down with them.
Eric R. Danton has been contributing to Paste since 2013, and writing about music and pop culture for longer than he cares to admit. Follow him on Twitter or visit his website.