First things first: Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock has not turned into Morrissey. Nor, for that matter, has he turned into Bernard Sumner. In fact, the participation of a certain Smiths guitarist in the recording of Modest Mouse’s first album since their super-duper 2004 crossover Good News for People Who Love Bad News is innocuous by Johnny Marr’s standards. Confining himself to filigrees not usually heard on a Mouse album, Marr reprises the role of the journeyman sessioner who played on that Pretenders record no one much likes but me. The boilerplate dolor of We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank‘s “Missed the Boat,” for example, preserves a pair of lovely solos that go from Byrds jangle to Chris Spedding twang faster than it takes Brock to crunch on syllables like cornflakes, and Marr’s experience arranging horn charts around prickly rhythm guitar had something to do with how fabulous first single “Dashboard” sounds.
Brock deals with the weight of expectations like you might expect. A guy who courts fear and trembling like Stephen Malkmus does bemused distance isn’t going to scare easily. But imagine the cheerful fatalism of “Float On” without the hooks, which is bizarre: Hooks would seem to be Marr’s specialty. The vertiginous sequencing doesn’t help. “We’ve Got Everything” seems like a manifesto, only it’s undercut by the rote imagery of “Fly Trapped in a Jar” and “Missed the Boat.”
It’s possible that Marr’s, shall we say, humility was a response to the incorrigible Brock. Croaking tales of roughing it in the rust belt like David Thomas, yelping like Lindsey Buckingham stuck in a bathroom with drumsticks and a pair of Kleenex boxes, he’s genuinely scary—a grotesque whose flashes of insight don’t assuage the impact of a nightmare from which he’s never awakened. “It was always worth it/That’s the part I seem to hide” is a lyric of startling precision; the fact that Brock still hides songs beneath clutter and clamor suggests that he and his new playmate still have more thinking to do.