Romance And Vitriol
This year marks ten years since the release of The Shins’ Wincing the Night Away. It would be the last record made by the line up of the band people are probably most familiar with – vocalist and guitarist James Mercer, guitarist Dave Hernandez, keyboardist Marty Crandall and drummer Jesse Sandoval.
“It was a really interesting time in my life because I had just met my wife-to-be,” Mercer recently told Double J of that time.
There was apparently a special little part in the heart of this generation where The Shins reside.
James Mercer — J Mag, 2012
“We were in love and there was all that newness. But there was also some drama in the band and relationships, and changes that were on the horizon.
“Things that ended up causing trouble that led to me going it alone on Port of Morrow.
“There’s both some really romantic stuff, but also some vitriol on that record, so it’s kind of this tension of being happy and angry and sad about different things.”
The essence of those feelings could be bottled up and sold as The Shins, and not just on that record.
The songs across all five albums are packed with chirpy or amorous melodies, emulsified with vocals that suggest Mercer is teetering on anxiety. And just beneath the surface, threatening to bubble over if not kept in check, is the occasional lyric with a scorching bitterness.
Mercer’s immediately identifiable voice is both earnest and strained and is rooted in the band’s beginnings in Albuquerque where he had to “beat out the guitars, amps, and drums.”
The song that made them famous, ‘New Slang’, embodies all of these elements. Mercer calls it a “total rebellion” against his surrounds of Alburquerque, “the most punk-rock fucking thing [he] could do in my life.”
The city’s music scene was heavy and aggressive, and the Shins music were designed to be the complete opposite of that. He admits they were not very popular in their hometown, even if they were opening for Cibo Matto and Modest Mouse.
“That was just, like, flipping off the whole city,” he said. “It’s definitely a moment in my life, that sort of angst and confusion about what my future was going to be.
“The Shins weren’t anything when I wrote that song. There wasn’t any hope for anything like a music career. It’s that end-of-your-20s thing. Before you knew it, my whole life was upside down: I got signed, I quit my job, I moved out of town, the big relationship I’d had for five years ended. All of a sudden my whole life was up in smoke.”
The effect ‘New Slang’ had on Mercer’s life make its inclusion in Zach Braff’s 2004 indie cult favourite film Garden State – where a guy in his late-20s takes stock of his life and relationships – fitting in many ways. It really did change James Mercer’s life.
Association with that Natalie Portman scene has rusted on to the band’s mythos and only become more entwined in their band bio. ‘New Slang’ also featured on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Sopranos and Scrubs in the same year, 2002, cementing its place in a specific time for a generation.
Speaking to J Mag in 2012, Mercer says he became aware of this for the first time in France.
“Everyone was making a really big deal about the fact that the Zach Braff movie [Garden State] had really gained a cult following amongst the young people of that era.
“Now they’re grown up and they look back at that period in the same way that we do John Hughes movies here in the States. There was apparently a special little part in the heart of this generation where The Shins reside, you know?”
Everything took off from there. Licensing offers, record deals and college shows snowballed.
“It was big,” Mercer told Incendiary Magazine. “We were exposed to a whole new audience. Before that it was really just word of mouth, and that was particularly why it took so long for the second record to come out. The exposure had doubled our audience and we toured the first album twice.”
Now The Shins muster up a nostalgia for very specific time in people’s musical lives. Whether it’s associated with the first time they watched Garden State or the string of bands that emerged from the Sub Pop label around the same time, like Modest Mouse and The Postal Service.
CHAPTER 2 – An Inverted World: Writing for The Shins
CHAPTER 3 – Torn Shin From Shin: James Mercer parts way with his bandmates
CHAPTER 4 – A Phantom Limb: Why remain The Shins?
CHAPTER 5 – Heartworms: Where to from here?
Originally published on 16th March, 2017.