Ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr knows a little something about dealing with strong-willed vocalists (ahem, Morrissey), so it's no surprise that his contributions to the poppiest Modest Mouse record yet are solid. But it's still a treat to hear how focused Isaac Brock and company are on the lushly arranged We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank
, perhaps thanks to new-member Marr's steadying veteran influence. "Dashboard" is Talking Heads taking a spin at the roller-disco (and is Ship
's über-mainstream moment, à la the last album's "Float On"), while other songs channel the maritime-folk of the Waterboys and Pogues, strident dance-punk, and (as usual) Built to Spill's nervous energy and Pavement's drawl. Even the occasional nods to Modest Mouse's less-accessible days i.e., the string-storm "Parting of the Sensory," whose ominous chords and chorus ("Someday you will die somehow and something's gonna steal your carbon") thunder like a fire-and-brimstone sermon somehow feel more mystical than manic.
At the same time, vocalist Isaac Brock's grunts, growls, and existential musings sound even more unhinged mainly because he's up against hi-fi production, air-tight hooks, and numerous appearances by Shins vocalist James Mercer (the latter's reedy, cherubic tenor anchors the rollicking R.E.M.-like highlight "Florida" and the ridiculously catchy lockstep-march "We've Got Everything"). And while the album starts to sound boring and feel bloated by its end and longtime fans will likely be aghast at Ship's commercial viability its sublime moments, coupled with Modest Mouse's new-found clarity, make for a bewitching listen. Annie Zaleski