Sparkling Music for a Dishwater World: The Shins and the Limitations of the Indie Rock Narrative

 

In March, Columbia Records launched one of its major albums of 2012, the Shins’s Port of Morrow. In the five years that had elapsed since the last full-length Shins release, the band, which became one of rock’s standard bearers with three terrific albums for Sub Pop Records between 2001 and 2007, underwent significant changes. Although two original Shins appear briefly on Port of Morrow, band founder, songwriter, and leader James Mercer remains the only permanent member. In addition to the new line-up, Port of Morrow is the first Shins album distributed by a major label. Mercer and the revamped band have generated extraordinary interest in the record, participating in a Columbia engineered program of multimedia promotion that has included live performance broadcasts (including a full hour on The Late Show with David Letterman), a nationwide tour, appearances at major festivals in the United States and Europe, consumer product tie-ins, and high-profile reviews. Internet download sites have offered special bonus tracks with Port of Morrow purchases, and the CD has appeared on display and on sale along with muffins and coffee at Starbucks. The new release has been reviewed not only by most mainstream and independent music critics, but also by prestigious cultural arbiters like the New Yorker. All of this seems to suggest that Mercer and the Shins have been given the recognition they deserve.

That is not, however, what has happened.

First, the album and live shows have not quite lived up to the hype. Reviews of Port of Morrow have been lukewarm. The online review aggregator Metacritic’s compilations of both critic and fan evaluations rank the album last among those in the Shins catalog, with many offering mild praise while characterizing the release as a letdown after a five-year wait. Moreover, live performances reflect a band whose members are still getting used to one another, and who are perhaps weary of the heavy promotional schedule.

A strong possibility exists that Shins followers and potential new fans will dismiss the hoopla, that casual observers will fail to appreciate that Port of Morrow is more of a transitional Mercer solo album than a Shins record, and that the significance of the Shins’ first three albums will remain unexplored. Thus, an assessment of the new album within a retrospective look at the band’s history is very much in order, a task made more urgent by critics’ and fans’ tendency to take an unnecessarily narrow view of the band.

Most recent commentators, regardless of their rating of Port of Morrow, have continued a longstanding tradition of straight-jacketing Mercer and the Shins into the American “indie rock” idiom, assessing their career trajectory based on commonly held, reductive, and often mistaken assumptions about musicians associated with the genre. This tendency within Shins criticism has resulted in widespread adulation of the band’s 2001 debut album, Oh, Inverted World, celebrated for its home-recorded charm and quirky yet accessible tunes; similarly effusive praise for the Shins’ second and somewhat more polished Chutes Too Narrow release; and severe underestimation of their third album, Wincing the Night Away, frequently criticized as less natural and spontaneous than the first two records, in part for its studio enhancements, complex arrangements, and fuller sound.

Interestingly, the enraptured attachment to Oh, Inverted World—fueled in part by a now-iconic mention of the album by actress Natalie Portman’s character in Zach Braff’s Garden State (2004) and the inclusion of two Inverted songs on the film’s hugely successful soundtrack—itself contributed to a Shins backlash that has affected commentary on the band ever since. The group became a victim of overblown expectations, according to a 2007 Village Voice review of Wincing the Night Away, which began with the sub-head “Pity the Shins, a good band now plagued by ubiquitous claims of greatness.” Clearly motivated by a desire to deflate the band’s reputation, reviewer Nate Cavilieri proceeded to prove the headline’s point by dismissing Wincing the Night Away’s sonic experimentation.

Much opinion on the Shins has divided into either early-album acolytes who see the band as a charming little gem that got too ambitious, or skeptics who consider the group an overhyped indie rock cliché. I would argue instead that the Shins have been underrated by genre-oriented, narrowcast commentary that is unable to capture the band’s or Mercer’s cultural and historical significance. By failing to place them in a larger context of popular music history, critics and fans do not sufficiently address the specifics of the band’s social meaning beyond the idea that they are—or were—“indie rock darlings.”

Even Sasha Frere-Jones, the savvy popular music critic for the New Yorker, shortchanges Mercer and the Shins in his Port of Morrow review. Before discussing the album, Frere-Jones argues that Mercer’s “innovation was to take indie rock quietly toward melody,” and suggests that the appealing, pretty pop songs on Oh, Inverted World were designed to provide an alternative to chart-topping hip-hop artists of the time like Missy Elliott and Outkast. With hip-hop “borrowing the attitude that indie kids had once claimed as their own, there was a chance for melody to redefine the genre.” Consequently, Frere-Jones writes, “a generation raised on the dissonance and refusenik ways of bands like Sonic Youth gave way to the campfire kids.” Setting aside the dubious claims that the Shins strategically tried to sound different than successful hip-hop artists and that hip-hop borrowed “attitude” from indie, this analysis fails to recognize that “indie rock” is a notoriously imprecise term, and that the “genre” has encompassed many different sounds both dissonant and melodic since its origins on pioneering independent record labels in the 1980s. American “indie” bands emphasizing melody before the Shins emerged include Guided by Voices, the Pernice Brothers, Yo La Tengo, the Posies, the Magnetic Fields, Sebadoh, members of the Elephant 6 collective, and many others. Moreover, the genre has also included both aggressively anti-establishment artists and more “neo-classic” performers for whom “indie” primarily signifies the importance of retaining artistic control. Finally, and perhaps especially important in analyzing the Shins, “indie rock” developed concurrently in the United States and the United Kingdom, and the Shins’ sound has been greatly influenced by creative, literate UK rock, especially by the Smiths and other Rough Trade artists of the 1980s, and by 1990s-origin acts like the Beta Band and Belle and Sebastian.

Frere-Jones is not alone, however, in caging Mercer and the Shins within a highly circumscribed indie rock narrative that is seen as somehow separate from or opposed to broader and longer-term popular music developments. The majority of Shins criticism provides an excellent example of how the fragmentation of music scenes has tended to shorten memories and shrink the perspectives of fans and observers, thus stripping rock music of some of its history and social significance. Rather than representing the first “indie rock” band to emphasize melody and serving as founders of a cutesy “campfire kid” branch of current pop, the Shins and especially Mercer are instead ambitious musicians who have established themselves as one of the new millenium’s most essential contributors to a long lineage of quirky, innovative melodic rock that has roots in the mid-1960s and the British Invasion, experimental pop like the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, and the folk revival.

An examination of the Shins’ first three albums in a broader musical and social context reveals that the band’s importance has been rooted in its ability to musically navigate the Atlantic in both space and time. Merging British and American styles of chamber pop, experimental rock, and folk, the band’s music echoes various countercultural music scenes including those of the Vietnam era, the reaction against Thatcherism in Britain in the 1980s, and the anti-corporate rock of the 1990s, while not quite sounding like any of them. Mercer’s lyrics have explored themes like fate, conformity, artifice, and rootlesssness in ways that resonate with—and occasionally directly reference—critiques of the post-Cold War spread of a triumphalist, advertising-infused, and conventional-wisdom-driven big-box-store capitalism in the United States and abroad. While the Shins are only occasionally overtly political, the band offers a tuneful antidote to what Mercer often describes—in both his lyrics and in interviews—as an inauthentic, empty world full of philosophical and economic hucksterism. The band’s music and lyrics compellingly juxtapose portraits of individual anxieties and relational difficulties with broader queries about human nature and free will in the modern world, and the Shins’ sound itself is built on intricate melodies that have been described as “off-kilter yet precisely manicured.”

While many writings on the Shins detail Mercer’s biography, few have fully explored how his life story may provide a key to understanding the nature and significance of the band’s music. Mercer’s father was a U.S. military official, a nuclear weapons expert who ran the Defense Department’s international training school for soldiers on nuclear bases. Raised Catholic, Mercer spent his childhood in several locations in the United States, Germany, and England; importantly, he lived in England from age 15 to 20—key experimental years for many developing rock musicians. Of the artists he has cited most often as influences, most were UK-based bands of the 1980s and 1990s, including the Smiths, the Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen, the Beta Band, and My Bloody Valentine. His lyrical themes are those one might expect from a “military brat” who traveled the globe but did not have a permanent home; they are written from the perspective of a sophisticated, precociously worldly outsider struggling to fit in. It is also striking to note that the son of a man who trained others how to use nuclear weapons so frequently explores themes of fate and powerlessness.

Mercer relocated from England to Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1990, and for the next several years he attended the University of New Mexico and worked several odd jobs, among them at Shoney’s Restaurant, Michaels, the hobby store, and at a factory that made ersatz “Southwestern” home décor. “We did a billion Kokopelli guys,” Mercer told a SPIN magazine interviewer, referring to the flute-playing Southwest Indian fertility deity who has appeared on countless tourist souvenirs and decorative ceramics and textiles. Mercer also played in several bands, the most significant of which was Flake Music, which included future Shins members Marty Crandall, Neal Langford (who left the Shins after Oh, Inverted World), and Jesse Sandoval. The band released several singles and EPs and one full-length album. More raucous and guitar driven than the Shins, Flake Music drew on American and British 1990s stalwarts like Built to Spill and The Jesus and Mary Chain, respectively, as well as on the pop punk of North Carolina’s Superchunk, yet Mercer’s high tenor and introspective lyrics recalled self-dramatizing, sensitive U.K. vocalists like Morrissey and Robert Smith at a time when many American rock singers emphasized either masculine vocalizing (the deep bass of Eddie Vedder and his less talented imitators) or wise-guy irony (Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus, for example). According to Mercer, this very different kind of male artist formed “the Shins” as a side project in 1996 when his Flake bandmates did not seem to understand why he wanted to introduce a wider variety of pop and folk sounds to the group.

Mercer performed “Shins” tunes both as a duo with drummer Jesse Sandoval and with a full band, which also included, at different times, Crandall, Langford, and former Scared of Chakra multi-instrumentalist Dave Hernandez. While on tour backing Modest Mouse in 2000, the Shins impressed Sub Pop’s Jonathan Poneman at a Seattle show, and he offered to release “New Slang” as a single on the label. A stirring song that melded the lonesome sound of American mountain music to a sweet pop melody with the kind of dramatic ascending chorus that Mercer’s exceptional vocal range perfectly executes, “New Slang” sounded unlike almost anything else in 2000.

The success of “New Slang,” perhaps still the song most identified with the Shins—and the one that, unfortunately, has tended to typecast them as “campfire kids”—led to a three-album contract with Sub Pop, and the track was the centerpiece of Oh, Inverted World. The 2001 debut is a deceptively low-fi record featuring Mercer’s literate, prolix lyrics and compositions that effectively blend the styles of late 1990s singer-songwriters like Elliott Smith and Jeff Mangum from Neutral Milk Hotel with a variety of 1960s pop and folk. Recorded primarily in a small apartment in Albuquerque, the album displays Mercer’s singular ability to set complex lyrics within elaborate yet accessible melodies. Moreover, this very hummable album also has, in its swirling keyboards, gently assertive drumming, reverberating guitars, and echoey, airy sound, an otherworldly quality that enables it to transcend its light psychedelic influences and pop craft. Although Mercer formed the Shins as a rebellion against Albuquerque’s punk and hard rock scenes, it is tempting to characterize Oh, Inverted World as the band’s “New Mexico album” not only because it breaks free from East and West coast music scene influences, but because it seems to capture the tension between modern sunbelt culture and multiple ancient wisdoms so prevalent in a region with such a complicated history.

This tension is established right away in the album’s striking opener, “Caring is Creepy,” which was included along with “New Slang” on the Garden State soundtrack and remains a staple of live performances. “Far above our heads,” Mercer sings over some of Crandall’s most psychedelic keyboards, “are the icy heights that contain all reason,” while forces on the ground seek to deceive: “It’s a luscious mix of words and tricks that let us bet when you know we should fold.” Several other songs on the disc refer to the contrast between the natural world and modern world, or—perhaps more often on this introspective record—between human nature as a whole and individual consciousness. Mercer has said that he writes songs while sitting in front of the television at night, half awake and half asleep. Indeed, the lyrics of Oh, Inverted World often seem like those of someone going over his or her day and writing anxious lines of poetry about what happened and what may happen the next day. “Held to the past, too aware of the pending,” the narrator mourns on the lyrical, contemplative “The Past and Pending.” (which Mercer played solo at Heath Ledger’s funeral in 2008 ) Negotiating these anxieties requires self-knowledge, suggests the jaunty “Know Your Onion,” which urges listeners to come up with their own “trick”—“making yourself.”

Tropes like self-reliance are perhaps typical for a new band with a youthful fan base; however, this first Shins album moves beyond coming-of-age themes because Mercer projects the image of not only an anxious young man, but also that of a knowing, somewhat misanthropic commentator. While most of Inverted only obliquely references “society,” the album seems designed to defy the emptiness and economic anxieties of the strip-mall, knick-knack-factory world from which Mercer came to the Shins. Again in “Caring is Creepy,” the singer concludes with an image of the harried, useless activity of “squawking birds…building nothing, laying bricks.” And in “New Slang,” aside from regretting the end of a relationship, the heartbroken narrator laments:

I’m looking in on the good life I might be doomed never to find Without a trust or flaming fields am I too dumb to refine?

The track’s almost unbearable combination of unrequited love and anxieties about success make “New Slang” a gorgeous punch to the guts, perfectly pitched for young adults. (Mercer himself has described “New Slang” as an “end of your twenties” song. ) It is also important to note, however, that the song’s narrator sees success as a matter of fate—it comes to those with the inherited wealth of a trust or who own land that happens to contain oil reserves.

Great first albums are often precious to an artist’s longtime fans and critical followers who associate the work with a thrilling sense of discovery, and this may be especially true within fan bases that self-identify as “indie rock.” That Oh, Inverted World simulates the experience of a living room concert reinforces this feeling of being in on a special secret. Thus, many consider Inverted to be the definitive Shins album. Oh, Inverted World was the only Shins album that made Rolling Stone’s list of the top albums of the 2000s, where it appeared at number 61. Pitchfork, which bills itself as “the essential guide to independent music and beyond,” placed the record at number 115 on its list of the 200 best albums of the decade.

The Shins followed up three years later with the more stylistically diverse, harder rocking Chutes Too Narrow. Chutes retains the chamber-pop-meets-folk-rock feel of Inverted while revealing more clearly the band’s debt to the idiosyncratic UK rock of the Smiths and XTC, and to 1970s radio rock like Cheap Trick and Foghat. Mercer sounds more articulate, confident, and strident on Chutes, which can be divided into three parts. The first three songs are, in the tradition of Bob Dylan and Morrissey, catchy tunes full of sarcasm and bile. The album’s middle three tracks amount to a song cycle about fate and destiny. Finally, the last four songs on Chutes seem like a stylistic experiment in which Mercer and the band prove that they can perform convincingly in any genre they choose, in these cases avant-folk, 1970s boogie, and classic country and western.

Chutes Too Narrow’s act one is highlighted by “So Says I,” a breakthrough hard rocker in which the singer rails against a greed-filled age “in which every soul is duty bound to uphold the statues of boredom,” and concludes by directly juxtaposing two major influences on Mercer’s upbringing:

We’ve got rules and maps and guns in our backs
But we still can’t just behave ourselves
Even if to save our own lives so, says I, we are a brutal kind.

Cuz this is nothing like we’d ever dreamt
Tell Sir Thomas More we’ve got another failed attempt
Cuz if it makes them money they might just give you life this time.

A crucial work in the Shins discography, the deliciously misanthropic “So Says I” challenges both the militarist arrogance of “rules and maps and guns in our backs” and the utopianism of a Catholic icon. The song’s narrator concludes that no amount of military order can disguise human brutality, and he sarcastically informs More, the canonized author of Utopia, that human greed continues to prevent human perfectibility.

“Saint Simon,” a lushly produced track featuring the full band as well as guest musicians on strings, is part two’s standout. After a musically sinuous and vocally intricate opening points out the limitations of “implements and texts designed by intellects” and of “nursery rhymes that helped us out in making sense of our lives,” the song shifts dramatically into a gorgeous bridge rejecting such received wisdom in favor of guidance offered by the power of mercy. In embracing a concept particularly important to Catholic spirituality, the song contrasts not only with “So Says I,” but also with “Know Your Onion” and its emphasis on self-reliance. The most striking among the eclectic collection of songs in the third part of Chutes is the one that concludes the record, “Those to Come,” a haunting acoustic track that compares cycles in human relationships to nature’s cycle of birth and death.

Although Chutes Too Narrow is straightforwardly produced and retains some of the homey feel of Inverted, it is clear from the album’s varied arrangements and serious, classically humanist subject matter that the Shins were never the “unassuming…indie pop band” once described so reductively by Pitchfork.* More ambitious than the stereotypical indie ethos would suggest, Mercer and the band knowingly draw on a wide range of styles and time periods—in many ways they are passionate curators of sophisticated pop—in an attempt to make timeless, unique rock music. The critical consensus is that the Shins were most successful in accomplishing this on Chutes Too Narrow, as the album is the band’s most acclaimed disc. It is the highest ranked album by both professional critics and fans, according to reviews compiled by Metacritic. Pitchfork ranked Chutes number 46 on its survey of the best albums of the 2000s, the highest ranking Shins album. Chutes was also the only Shins record picked to appear on Paste magazine’s decade review, which, typically, characterized the album as “unassuming.”

Chutes is indeed a terrific work, but its status as the Shins’ highest rated record offers excellent evidence for how much fans’ and critics’ relationship to and experience of albums have changed. In the analog and even early digital ages when people were more likely to buy CDs than download, fans experienced albums more intimately—they had to be chosen out of a stack and could be held in one’s hand—and the best releases often succeeded by creating their own worlds into which listeners could immerse themselves. On these terms, Chutes is less successful than both Oh, Inverted World and the Shins’ third album, Wincing the Night Away. Chutes is a wonderfully eclectic collection of stellar songs, but it does not represent a cohesive, fully formed alternative sonic universe as well as do the Shins’ first and third albums.

Which brings us to Wincing the Night Away (2007), the Shins’ most often misunderstood album. To develop the record’s sonic palette, Mercer enlisted the help of co-producer Joe Chiccarelli, a veteran who has worked with the White Stripes, My Morning Jacket, and the Counting Crows, among many others. The result is a remarkably cohesive and compelling pop masterpiece, and Wincing represents the culmination of the Shins’ stellar three-album run on Sub Pop that comprises one of the best such triumvirates in the annals of rock and pop.** That this evaluation of Wincing is not a consensus view will be discussed shortly.

Wincing the Night Away serves as a model of how studio enrichment and a more spacious sound can work with a unit as delicately balanced as the Shins if a producer emphasizes a band’s strengths while preserving its uniqueness. Wincing features creative multiple tracking of Mercer’s voice and a strong, occasionally fuzzed-out bottom end. Chiccarelli also highlights the thick, agilely played guitar lines of Dave Hernandez, the band’s most virtuoso instrumentalist. The album relies on additional musicians judiciously, most notably on “Red Rabbits” and “A Comet Appears,” which feature the Decemberists’s Chris Funk on lap steel and other instruments, and Paloma Griffin of Pink Martini on violin, among others. Most importantly, Wincing combines dazzling songwriting craft with an Oh, Inverted World-style ethereal vibe.

Wincing has the feel of what used to be called a “concept album.” The title refers to Mercer’s tendency to suffer from insomnia, and many songs feature narrators and characters who experience different states of awareness, ranging from denial to being fully awake, to—most often—a mysterious in-between dream state. Recurring metaphors of land and sea, and of liquidity and brittleness, seem to represent these different conditions. Other themes emerge within these recurring motifs. For example, rebellion and nonconformity are the subject of Wincing’s first three songs, “Sleeping Lessons,” “Australia,” and “Phantom Limb,” all of which are among the band’s most irresistible neo-classic rock tunes. Like this spectacular trio, the remainder of the album ventures further away from folk and more firmly into innovative chamber pop and melodic rock than previous Shins efforts. All tracks are essential to the success of the album, including the hypnotic but incomplete-seeming “Pam Berry” and “Black Wave,” often referred to by critics as “filler,” but which serve, in “concept album” fashion, as intriguing interludes between album sections.

Although Wincing generated strong sales and many favorable reviews when it was first released, it lost momentum quickly, and the album has not achieved the classic status it deserves. It is the lowest ranked of the Shins’ first three albums. Veteran rock critic Robert Christgau’s 2007 review in Rolling Stone typifies how preconceptions about “indie rock” have tended to shape critical response to the record and to the Shins. After noting the simple fact that the album is more highly produced and several minutes longer than its two predecessors, Christgau concludes:

There’s no way the music can be good in all the modest ways the old music was. There’s no way it can sound lissome or fetching or unguarded–and fewer ways it can sound lyrical or plaintive or homemade. Instead, Wincing the Night Away feels labored.

This is not so much an album review as it is a reflexive placement of the Shins’ discography into the hoariest stock indie rock narrative, one that claims that when a band’s music becomes less “modest” or “homemade,” its music is less worthy.
Many of the band’s fans have resorted to similar narratives to evaluate Wincing. Among the fan reviews of Wincing posted to Metacritic, ToddW’s was particularly revealing:

Everything that made Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow absolutely brilliant, transcedant (sic) pop music has been sanitized and streamlined. Remember the first time you heard “Saint Simon,” with that angelic bridge that came out of nowhere? Or the first time you followed along with Oh, Inverted World‘s lyric sheet and had to scrape your jaw off the floor? Don’t be expecting any of that on Wincing. Come to think of it, that’s about all you can expect if you’ve been a pre-Garden State fan….So run out to your local Barnes and Noble, soccer moms! Answer Mercer’s pleas! This is the jam you can play for your kids on the way to the games to show them that you’re still “happening.”

The key line here, of course, is the one that refers to Garden State. ToddW is upset that the film introduced the Shins to people who were not part of the in-group of the original fan base; predictably, he dismisses subsequent work by the band. No one is obligated to praise Wincing the Night Away, of course, but Christgau’s reductive framework and ToddW’s snobbery are so influenced by the built-in limits of the indie rock narrative that their reviews lack credibility. Unfortunately, they are representative.

Of the many music publications and review compilations that I researched, only one listed Wincing the Night Away as one of the best albums of the 2000s. Fittingly, it is a publication perhaps less likely than most to be influenced by American indie scene clichés or to ignore the trans-Atlantic nature of modern rock and pop: England’s venerable New Musical Express ranked Wincing as the 13th best album of the 2000s, calling it “their best yet,” and noting that it features “a much more varied, confident sound without compromising one little bit.”

The icing on the cake is Mercer’s cryptic lyrics – like Dylan, you’re never quite sure what he’s actually on about most of the time, but when he mentions being “faced with the dodo’s conundrum” (‘Australia’) or refers to “polymorphing opinion” on the woozy ‘Spilt Needles’, it sounds so good that in the end it really doesn’t matter.

Here the NME breaks what seems to be a cardinal rule of “indie rock” criticism, the one that says thou shall not compare indie musicians to rock royalty of the past, lest the indie musicians begin to be taken seriously as artists. For anyone with any sense of history, however, it is very difficult to listen to Mercer’s lyrics without thinking of Dylan’s tangled, elliptical, often misanthropic songs, or to listen to the Shins’ progression into more baroque pop without thinking of the Kinks or—the indie gatekeepers will now surely send me to hell—the Beatles.

During the half-decade between Wincing the Night Away and Port of Morrow, Mercer—in an occasionally conflictive, often confusing process—redefined the Shins as a solo project featuring rotating membership rather than maintaining a permanent group. The band leader also developed other projects, most notably Broken Bells, a collaboration with Brian Burton (Danger Mouse) that resulted in a superb debut album in 2010. Although credited to “The Shins,” Port of Morrow, which features an entirely new lineup on six of ten tracks, represents another new solo venture for Mercer in terms of sound, songwriting style, and personnel. The record is strong overall and occasionally magnificent, but unlike previous Shins albums, Port contains a few low points and suffers a bit from pedestrian production and at times unfinished-sounding arrangements. Producer Greg Kurstin’s sound is simultaneously majestic and generic in the manner of much film soundtrack music. If Oh, Inverted World was the Shins’ New Mexico album and Chutes and Wincing flew the Concord between England and the States, then Port of Morrow is Mercer’s L.A. record.

It is to Mercer’s credit, however, that he continues to experiment sonically. The musician also challenges himself artistically on Port of Morrow by practicing a new songwriting style featuring much more direct lyrics. More often than not, the new approaches succeed. Highlights include “It’s Only Life,” which features a tremendously emotive vocal from Mercer, and “Bait and Switch,” a rollicking track with electrifying guitar work from Hernandez.

The longtime Shin Hernandez and session drummer Janet Weiss, formerly of Sleater Kinney, are the record’s most exciting instrumentalists. Several songs on Port are clearly autobiographical; perhaps the most interesting is “40 Mark Strasse,” drawn from a memory of a time in Mercer’s childhood when his family lived on a military base in Germany. The song’s title refers to a place where American soldiers would pick up prostitutes. The singer imagines himself as a boy thinking about one of the young women, and the boy wonders why she would “let these Americans put another dent in your life.” In portraying the military son’s and local daughter’s simultaneous loss of innocence, “40 Mark Strasse” hints at some of the prices paid by the children of military families, but also suggests that such children may develop a capacity for feeling empathy for the many kinds of people they encounter.

In two other key tracks, the driving, catchy rock tunes “Rifle’s Spiral” and “No Way Down,” Mercer touches on longtime thematic concerns within his most directly topical songs. “Rifle’s Spiral” adopts the point of view of a bin Laden-like jihadist leader addressing one of his young martyrs in the Western city where he will soon die:

So long to this wretched form, them grey eyes on the subway
Long before you were born you were always to be a dagger floating straight to their heart

A few lines later, one of Mercer’s typically shimmering bridges notes that the leader is back home, and the martyr is dead, “amidst the glitz of a shopping mall, another grain of indigent salt for the sea.” “Rifle’s Spiral” importantly recounts its story in multiple global locations and, as on previous albums, Mercer’s lyrics express skepticism about both fundamentalist teachings regarding destiny and the superficiality of modern consumer culture.

The equally excellent “No Way Down” represents the songwriter’s most direct critique of the global economy. The track begins with the intriguing introduction:

Meet the son of a government man and a pillar of salt
I was born with blood on my hands and have all the signs of a bleeding heart

While open to interpretation, the reference to the Biblical story of Lot’s wife (the “pillar of salt”) seems to draw an analogy between military children and the offspring of Lot’s family, which fled the sinful, remorseless cities of Sodom and Gomorrah before they were destroyed. The narrator then describes a world in which “a tiny few are having all of the fun” while foreign laborers “work for nothing at all—they don’t know the mall or the layaway plan.” Yet it is not inequality that Mercer targets in the track’s most dramatic moment when, as most of the instrumentation quiets, the singer instead expresses outrage about the sham of modern life.

Make me a drink strong enough to wash away
the dishwater world they said was lemonade

In many ways, “40 Mark Strasse,” “Rifle’s Spiral,” and “No Way Down” simply confirm more explicitly than before what Mercer and the Shins have always been about. Mining his experiences as a “military brat” at both personal and global levels while also viewing the world from the perspective of a suburban sunbelt economy kid, Mercer expresses sympathy for desperate outsiders like the prostitute and jihadist martyr, and provides a moral critique of militarism and the strip-mall-dominated, fraudulent “developed” world.

Grasping the significance of the Shins (and no doubt many other artists who have been misjudged by genre-oriented analysis) requires jettisoning the clichés of typical “indie rock” criticism, which not only mistrusts artistic ambition, as detailed in this piece, but also often suggests that “indie rock” is the exclusive purview of self-absorbed, privileged white males. Corollary to this (not entirely invalid) point is that “unassuming” “indie rock” is not as socially significant as hip-hop and other music originating in marginalized communities, or as the work of explicitly political singer-songwriters and more overtly grandiose bands like Radiohead or U2. Yet the music of James Mercer and the Shins shows that compelling countercultural artistry can come from the worlds of the “military brat” and the big-box-store clerk. From “New Slang” to “No Way Down,” the songwriter and his band mates have offered listeners sophisticated, empathetic observations of the anxiety and emptiness of modern life, and their intricate, melodic pop has provided a beautifully crafted alternative to a “squawking-bird” world of assembly lines churning out “a billion Kokopelli guys.”

Kenneth Maffitt is an assistant professor of History and Interdisciplinary Studies at Georgia’s Kennesaw State University.

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* “There’s very little one can say about the Shins,” Matt LeMay writes in the introduction to his interview with Mercer, “that hasn’t already been said, and even less that warrants being said at all.” This is a perfect example of the problem with Shins criticism because, in reality, the opposite is true. “Peel back the layers of hyperbole, hype, and backlash,” LeMay continues, “and the Shins are simply an unassuming and excellent formalist indie pop band.” Like Cavilieri, LeMay responds to the hype-backlash cycle surrounding the band by diminishing them instead of exploring their larger significance.

** Since Mercer and the Shins first emerged in the mid-1990s, I would argue, only two artists have been able to sustain similarly high quality and artistic development over three consecutive albums: Bjork (Debut, Post, and Homogenic) and Radiohead (The Bends, OK Computer, and Kid A)—though one could also make arguments for Arcade Fire, Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, Outkast, Kanye West, or the White Stripes.

Comments

  1. I’d like to hear your thoughts on the title track from Port of Morrow. It’s probably my favorite off the new record

    • Kenneth Maffitt says:

      Very cool song, slow psychedelia with a great falsetto vocal that Mercer has been using more often in both Broken Bells and the new Shins. Lyrics about the inevitability of death and decay that places the old fate theme in both historical and ecological contexts, showing that as Mercer has gotten older and become a parent, his perspective has broadened. The “ecology” of the Shins is something I didn’t have room to explore here, but the lyrics include many images of plants and animals (see also the “Saint Simon” video) and references to the contrast between strip-mall suburbia and the natural landscape (see also the “Australia” video). Thanks for your comment, James, and feel free to chime in with your own thoughts on this or any other topics.

  2. I love this article. In my opinion, labeling a band as a particular genre gets in the way of growth of the band. Things are bound to change, including the art and style of a band. Although Wincing The Night Away is probably my favorite Shins album, I love the new approach in Port of Marrow. I have respect for all the influences other bands give the next generation of artist, and I am glad to see that brought into light here. The same type of criticism happened to one of my favorite bands, Brand New. Bands change and grow all the type, just look at the scope of the Beatles. Anyways, great take on the Shins.

  3. Great point about the pretensions and constraints of “indie.” Perhaps it’s a (fortunate) product of my age (mid-40s) that I don’t feel compelled to categorize my taste as “indie” or anything else in particular. In some ways the indie idea partakes of the old, romantic idea of the artist. Too bad for those who deprive themselves of good music because it’s no longer underground or unknown!

  4. Mitali Routh says:

    Ken, you and I have talked at length about Wincing the Night Away’s confounding role within The Shins’s discography. But reading your essay again made me think of some other factors that may play into its negative reception. First, I wonder if its apparent seamlessness–which, as you point out, is something often associated with concept albums–may come across as a grandiose, historically misplaced gesture toward some notion of “the real” (for example, concept albums were often autobiographical & confessional in nature), which PoMo culture claims to have dispensed with long ago. Building upon that, the album also seems to capitulate to the Beautiful; in its ambitious and soaring unity it romanticizes moments of pain and ecstasy described in the song. But this is straight beauty, not ironic beauty. Wincing lacks the darkness and pathos that would firmly situate it in a different genre–such as Eliot Smith-style Emo or the prog-rock sublime articulated by The Mars Volta–than their own indie rock-defining anthem, New Slang. And fans who are attached to the sound of early Shins songs seem to be hopelessly rapt/wrapped up with the disaffected hope of New Slang (“I was happier then with no mindset,” etc.). There can be no surrender to “truth” there.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Sparkling Music for a Dishwater World: The Shins and the Limitations of the Indie Rock Narrative […]

  2. […] similar to the voice of the Shins’ James Mercer. In fact, the Counterfactuals’ sound resembles the Shins enough on some tracks, like 2 and 7, that parts of Minimally Decent People might have been a better […]

  3. […] Sparkling Music for a Dishwater World: The Shins and the Limitations of the Indie Rock Narrative (tropicsofmeta.wordpress.com) […]

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