These days, James Mercer seems like an asshole. There are classic signs that Mercer has bought into his own/other people’s hype. Here’s my evidence- The second most recent Shins album, Wincing the Night Away, revolved around the agony of Mercer’s bout with insomnia (as somebody who can probably count the number of 8-hour nights I’ve had this year one one hand, get over it). At some point after Wincing…, Mercer fired every other member of the band and replaced them with an indie rock dream team (The drummer from Modest Mouse! Songwriter Richard Swift! St Vincent!) using the pretentious even if its true excuse that “it was all to benefit the songs. That’s the most important thing.” Mercer then jumped ship from Sub Pop to found his own division of Columbia Records. His new album was recorded with Katy Perry’s producer. Mercer has spoken of the new album as though it were a great statement. Seriously- what an asshole!
The seriousness with which Mercer carries himself through interviews and his songs at this point is hilarious, considering the reason people loved The Shins was because of how low-key and low-stakes they were. People made fun of the band for the Natalie Portman “The Shins will change your life” line in Garden State, but what people don’t realize/acknowledge is the heaping portion of irony in the line. If your life is as small and suburban as the characters in that film, yeah, it’s possible that ramshackle indie pop might change your life.
But here’s my argument- maybe being an asshole isn’t such a bad thing. Let’s look at the opening tracks to the Shin’s first two albums and then Point of Morrow’s song #1.
Oh, Inverted World opened with “Caring is Creepy”, a song which feels like muggy bricollage. The song’s flat production inadvertently makes the song seem more collaborative than it is; Mercer’s chalky, naturally reverbed voice is about even with the lazy drums and meandering organs. And, pretty clearly, the song is about nothing, and is pretty clearly OK with that fact.
Chutes Too Narrow began with “Kissing the Lipless”- fast hand claps a nerdy yelp. The song is precious and twee; it is the kind of thing that you could emblazon on a sampler and hang above a vintage wobbly dinner table in the first shared apartment you ever own. Even as both of these songs are different from one another, they both feel young, imperfect, disticnt. And then there’s Port of Morrow.
The new album begins with “The Rifle’s Spiral,” and, from the get-go, you can tell that Mercer’s songwriting has evolved just as rapidly as his ballooning ego. The song feel menacing and jittery, but very much purposeful- those drums command without reservations, that bass feels non-wrinkled, the whole thing feels immaculately tailored. Mercer commands somebody to get his bags for him. Mercer tells off “you” (The listener? Former band-mates?), dismissing, “you’re not invisible/you just don’t exist.” And it all works so well! With the exception of the album’s last few tracks where Mercer’s new-found falsetto hams up otherwise fine songs, the album is a triumph. If Mercer had shown any of the doubt or awkwardness of The Shins’ earlier albums, Port of Morrow would have failed.
My reference point for songs and albums like this isn’t modern pop, it’s always cheesy 80s metal, especially the obsessiveness of Axl Rose. Guns and Roses work because nothing is left to the imagination, and nothing is left ambiguous. Nothing, is done for the sake of art. Everything done for the sake of the song. Sometimes, the asshole win. And sometimes, that’s ok.
Also, for anyone who misses the day when ladies fronting rock bands wasn’t a cause for celebration because it wasn’t so fucking uncommon, and remembers when simple songs didn’t mean stupid, and remembers when pop songs could sailor’s knot your heart a little bit, I would strongly recommend the La Sera album. No question, as good as the best of Velocity Girl.