October 4, 2010 / Perspective
Brett McCracken. Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010. 255 …
October 10, 2004
Are The Shins happy? It’s hard to know, of course, but with two critically acclaimed albums under their belts, they have the right to be. In three years they have shot from anonymity to indie rock stardom with a collection of songs in which happiness is not one of the dominant themes. One gets the sense, in fact, that The Shins are happiest when they’re just a little depressed; James Mercer’s lyrics are uniformly bittersweet, skeptical, and cryptic. This is guitar pop to play after a breakup, not at a wedding.
Take their first album, Oh, Inverted World, a critics’ darling when it appeared in 2001. Not one of its eleven tracks rises above the level of benign dissatisfaction with life. The biggest problem? Women. “Girl Inform Me” wonders, “do you harbor sighs, or spit in my eye?” and the narrator has difficulty committing to a new relationship because “your clever eyes could easily disguise some backwards purpose / it’s enough to make me nervous.” Not trust but anxiety infects many of these songs. The gnawing worry about the future can lead someone to believe, after one breakup, that “I’m looking in on the good life I might be doomed never to find.”
Regret over the loss of relationship is as prominent a theme as anxiety. These are rehearsed only to emphasize the narrator’s impotence (metaphorically speaking, of course). It is the women in these songs who have the power. Tunes like “New Slang” (one of the album’s best tracks) and “Girl on the Wing” paint word pictures of women who can “turn me back into the pet I was when we met.” The narrator watches, feels, and comments, but rarely acts. And then, to bring regret and anxiety together, the final tune on the disc (“The Past and Pending”) manages to lament the past while worrying about what’s next.
While all of this may sound like juvenile self-pity, The Shins turn these songs into bittersweet, rather than truly melancholy, tunes. Mercer’s lyrics help here. Instead of relying on the one hundred word vocabulary of top 40 pop, Mercer spins phrases like “engine grease and mint,” “shut out, pimpled, and angry,” and “one wound up punch of intuition.” The sharp and often surprising lyrics inject a note of playfulness into what are essentially depressing tales, so that many songs seem performed with a shrug, as if to say, “Well—that’s life.”
Lyrically, it’s not a perfect album. While every line makes sense on its own, the sum total of them often feels opaque, as though Mercer writes from his own experience but won’t give you the background needed to understand them. There is a place for this sort of writing, but over time it becomes annoying, like watching friends at a party smile over a secret joke. For instance, the complete text to “Your Algebra:”
you may notice certain things before you die.
mail them to me should they cause
your algebra to fail.
cole and macey lost their eyes
on the finer points
roll them up in coffee cake and dine.
While meaning can be squeezed from this, no one would argue that it adds up to something clear.
The music is excellent throughout, filled with acoustic and reverb-heavy electric guitars, though it is the consistent wash of synthesizers that give the band its signature sound. Marty Crandall’s work on the keyboards never pushes to the front of the songs, but weaves surprising patterns behind the main guitar textures. On many songs, including the opener, “Caring is Creepy,” the keyboards lend a slightly sinister atmosphere to the proceedings, but also give the record a lazy spaciousness.
The rhythms of both drum and guitar are angular and surprising. Few of the tracks have radio-friendly backbeats, but Mercer’s voice soars wonderfully above the music. Though no Neil Young, Mercer has a high and thin voice with a pleasing purity that works well with his material. Though working in obvious pop/rock territory, The Shins refuse to follow the simpler conventions of the genre and manage to craft something fresh without leaving rock and roll behind (listen to “Girl on the Wing” and “Girl Inform Me” for quintessential examples of this).
In Chutes Too Narrow (2003), the band takes a mature step forward. The melodies are catchier, the words flow more naturally, the production is more varied. Mercer shows off his vocal chops right from the start, nailing a high and ragged note of anguish less than a minute into the first track. Though rooted in the realm of guitar pop, The Shins broaden their musical palette a bit on this album. Most tracks have a stronger beat and there are hints of pedal steel in “Gone for Good” and harmonica on “Pink Bullets.”
Thematically they have expanded as well. In addition to the now standard relationship troubles (in “Kissing the Lipless,” “Mine’s Not a High Horse,” “Pink Bullets,” and “Gone for Good”), the group showcases a more skeptical attitude to life. While this was implicit in much of Oh, Inverted World, on Chutes Too Narrow it stands front and center. Religious narratives, especially, come in for critique. Trusting the stories found in “the book that’s the strangest” (apparently the Bible) only makes people “marionettes on weakening cables” (“Fighting in a Sack”). This distrust of past narratives can be found again in “Young Pilgrims,” where Mercer sings, “I was raised to gather courage from those lofty tales so tried and true and if you’re able I’d suggest it ‘cause this modern thought can get the best of you.” Though longing to believe the old stories, Mercer can no longer do so in good conscience and so accepts the anxiety that comes with the loss of an overarching narrative about the world. Again, in “Saint Simon,” he sings, “I don’t have the time nor mind to figure out the nursery rhymes that helped us out in making sense of our lives… I value them but I won’t cry every time one’s wiped out.”
Not being able to trust the stories of the past can be depressing because it lays a burden on each individual to come up with their own explanation ‘for life, the universe, and everything’ (as Douglas Adams titled one of his novels about the same themes). And in fact, The Shins are aware of this pressure and the anxiety it can cause. “I know I’ve got this side of me that wants to grab the yoke from the pilot and fly the whole mess into the sea,” Mercer sings in “Young Pilgrims,” a song about this very quest for truth in a postmodern world. The only comfort that the song can offer is this “simple epitaph”: “fate isn’t what we’re up against / there’s no design, no flaws to find.”
Like their first album, Chutes Too Narrow is bittersweet throughout (with the exception of the energetic “Turn a Square”), concluding with the lovely but ice cold ballad, “Those to Come.” Both discs are worth a listen, though reading the lyric sheet is a virtual necessity, as Mercer spits out words like “some unconscionable dream” in a rapid fire staccato that will test even the sharpest ear.
The Shins craft songs of constraint, about leaving and about being left, and they do it with a fresh sound and a smart set of lyrics. There is certainly a place for this kind of music, though if you tell people how comforting it should be to live in a world without Providence, you might want to make that world look a bit more attractive. At their best, The Shins are faithful interpreters of life’s confusion and pain, though at their lesser moments they can veer into a certain kind of realism in which the “truest” art is the bleakest.