Posted by: patti | November 23, 2008

Why I Love The Shins

Personally, I think it should be obvious, and everyone should love The Shins, but, you know.  Not everyone is as hip as I am.

I just spent the day with their 2001 debut album Oh, Inverted World.  I won’t admit to how many times I’ve listened to this album, but I can tell you with authority that the iTunes play count does track into the four digits.  I can also tell you, with authority, that Oh, Inverted World is a perfect album.  In this yet-to-be-adequately-named era of music, the album has been declared dead more times than I’ve listened to Oh, Inverted World, but I’d like to argue that these death knells are the exact reason bands like The Shins stand out as masters of a not-dead-yet craft.

I’ll argue the whole album thing some other time.  First, The Shins.  Now, I don’t have the vocabulary to talk about their music — I know what I like, which is music that makes my body move without me telling it to, and they’ve got that, and that’s a lot.  I’ve read the online reviews:  apparently, my body responds to unexpected chord changes, bright infectious poppy hooks, and jangly guitars.  Fair enough.

But I love The Shins because James Mercer makes self-deprecation an actual art form, particularly on this album.  He hides his dark, lovely, sincere words behind bright infectious jangly music, and even if the words weren’t literally self-deprecating, which, oh, they are, this act of hide-and-seek would be enough.

Mercer, one in a long line of sweet, sensitive geeks with beards I’ve fallen hard for, wants desperately to understand what he’s feeling.  He wants to understand what you are feeling, too — probably he wants to understand you so he can write another song about how right he was about what you are feeling.  But he doesn’t want you to know he cares about any of these feelings.  He just wants to, you know, talk.  He believes in the “wound up punch of intuition.”  He knows the “wise cracks don’t make you more stable.”  But he can’t help it, and he won’t change, not for you.

In “Caring Is Creepy,” which is easily the best. first. track. of any album. ever, he warns us that “it’s a luscious mix of words and tricks / that let us bet when you know we should fold.”  One reviewer calls Mercer’s lyrics “hazy and lazy,” and while that’s a cute tidy rhyme and all, that’s missing the point.

All of Mercer’s songwriting, I believe, is summed up in a throwaway couplet in “Caring Is Creepy”: “this is way beyond my remote concern / of being condescending.”  See what he did there?  He is completely condescending and judgmental — of course he is, he’s an indie songwriter — but he worries about it.  See how sweet?  This song, which tells you in its very title that giving a shit is overrated, wants us to believe that he is simply holding his glass up and holding it all in: “one day I’ll be be wondering how / I got so old just wondering how / I never got cold wearing nothing in the snow.”  That inherent contradiction, that wondering about all the time we’ve wasted wondering — yes, James, yes.

And all the rest of the album, Mercer rolls his eyes, wishes he didn’t have cause to roll those eyes so, calls himself “pimpled and angry,” and all the while, he pretends he’s not tying his guts into knots.  He understands, or says he does, why the girl doesn’t take to him.   In his self-proclaimed song of modern love, he is not hazy or lazy in his words: “I’m through with riddles, I know we’re little / just help me feel warm inside.”  The images of snow and cold are not accidental — he puts himself out in the cold before anyone else can, and it’s impossible not to notice how desperately he wants us to warm him with our affection.

But, just in case we don’t get it, he makes sure we know he doesn’t care, makes sure we noticed the Oh in Oh, Inverted World:  “I know when you hear these sappy lines / you’ll roll your eyes and say ‘nice try.'”

Oh, honey.  It’s so much more than that.



  1. damn right, Mercer is not just a singer he is a poet, a writer. It is nice to know someone else gets it

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