Legacy is a hell of a thing to reckon with. For the bands that simply keep going, whether out of conviction, resolve, or simply continued enjoyment, it’s potentially the beast forever clawing at their backs. True, there is the rare act that simply never seems to lose a step – see Wire – but for far more artists, the truly freeing moment comes when they simply stop worrying about it, already.
Modest Mouse have felt like they’ve been reckoning with that very beast for the better part of two decades now. Save for those far too elitist for their own good, 2004’s Good News For People Who Love Bad News was every bit the match for their two prior, more canonized albums. But from 2007’s We Were Dead on, despite some brilliant songs, they’ve felt like a band pulling towards the future, held back by expectations for ‘the Modest Mouse sound’. Time between albums grew longer, especially for a group once known for genuine bursts of passion leading to fully-formed projects.
When Strangers to Ourselves finally arrived in 2015, it was better than many gave it credit for, but reactions felt particularly beholden to what a Modest Mouse album ‘should’ sound like, leaving some unhappy that it didn’t boast the leap in sound such a gestation period may have implied. (Indeed, minds were boggled when sessions were reported to include Big Boi, nowhere to be found on the finished product).
Following this hand, many assumed the same would be true of their latest long-gestating project, The Golden Casket. Quite the opposite has proven to be true. Songwriter and frontman Isaac Brock has clearly reached a level of comfort and understanding with his place as to be able to throw caution and – even more importantly – pride to the wind.
This feels akin to the attitude with which Brock and the band approached The Golden Casket. Indeed, sessions even began with intentions for them to eschew the instruments with which they were familiar, which Brock jokes, “lasted about two days”. Nonetheless, it perfectly displays the adventurousness and open mindedness which led the album’s creation, with Brock playing far less guitar than ever before.
This may well imply an odder Modest Mouse record than ever, but instead the band arrived somewhere arguably even braver for a band long most-revered for their noisiest moments: their slickest album yet. Replete with charming bells and whistles, with nearly countless creative outlets appearing in the place of the often absent guitar (from the uncommon ‘soft drink percussion’, to the bizarre vibraslap, right on down to something called a ‘spacephone’), it’s in many ways the most painstakingly recorded album the band has put together to date. Each and every track reveals more to its charm with ongoing listens, particularly when taken in via headphones, from the clicks and claps of opener “Fuck Your Acid Trip” to the playful slinkiness of the marimba on “The Sun Hasn’t Left” to the alluring aquatic blips of “Leave a Light On”.
Much has been made of “Transmitting Receiving”, both in regards to its nature as a captivating, fearful depiction of modern technology and Brock’s mental state, and while it is an unsettling barb amidst the album’s typically calmer waters, in truth, there’s equal, if not greater, power in The Golden Casket’s intimate moments. Sure, you can make “Wooden Soldiers”’ chorus “You just being here being you’s enough for me,” about a disdain for our global social media obsession, but to me, it’s impossible not to simply hear the love and simple humanity in the words. It’s an idealism is also found in “We’re Lucky”, a song of pure thankfulness for existence amidst stars and seas. This newfound delicacy – even optimism – is most apparent on “Lace Your Shoes”, Brock’s love letter to his children, and surely the tenderest song he’s ever written.
If you’re only here for a “Life Like Weeds” or “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine” successor, Modest Mouse aren’t concerned about you. Nor should they be. If you’re here for immediate gratification, well, you’ll still get it from the album’s newfound warmth, but this is a work far more layered than gilded.
Balancing the joy to be found within and the grim implications of the phrase itself, The Golden Casket is meant for all of us. Whatever guise we pile on, we all end up in the same place. For a genre replete with posturing, it’s beyond refreshing to receive an album that so readily wears its heart on its sleeve, especially from a band so esteemed: with so much to potentially lose. Modest Mouse have made gains simply by being themselves. This is comfort food for the well-worn soul.