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