"Australia" / The Shins
All right, I know, it will never measure up to the Kinks song of the same name, on their classic album Arthur. But I've had the Shins on my mind for the past few days, ever since re-watching the movie Garden State, which first introduced me to them via the song "New Slang." (If you haven't seen it, Natalie Portman and Zach Braff meet cute in the waiting room of a neurologist's office when she hands him her earphones to listen to the Shins, assuring him that it will change his life.) And as soon as I put on their 2007 album Wincing the Night Away, this is the song that I've been singing.
Like the Kinks' "Australia," this song seems upbeat, drenched in Beach Boy-ish falsettos, perky Sputnik-style guitar riffs, skippy syncopation, and upwards charging melodic phrases. Yet while the Kinks gave us a neat parody of a government sales pitch luring post-war Brits to resettle in Australia, the Shins are up to something totally different beneath that buoyant sound. Their trademark off-kilter lyrics feature allusive shards of words that create a mindset rather than tell a story, and the mindset this song creates is so much darker than that blithe la-la-la surface suggests.
James Mercer, who writes all the Shins' songs, packs in the clever, baffling lyrics so quickly, it's almost impossible to pin down what he's on about. (What it has to do with Australia, I have no idea; how literal-minded of me even to ask.) Basically, he's beckoning a girl who yearns for happiness, pointing out with just a tremble of neurotic sympathy, "Been alone since you were twenty-one, / You haven't laughed since January, / You try and make like this is so much fun, / But we know it to be quite contrary." He coaxes her to run off with him and his free-spirited kind, escaping a conventional existence ("They're gonna buy your life's time," with the "selfless fool who hoped he'd save us all" (Jesus?) holding her down). "You'll be damned to pining through the windowpanes," he predicts, "You know you'd trade your life for any ordinary Joe's."
Just for good measure, he adds a carpe diem note of warning: "Well do it now or grow old, / Cause your nightmares only need a year or two to unfold," and "Will you be pulled from the ocean, / But just a minute too late," and he adds in the last verse, "You don't know how long I've been / Watching the lantern dim, / Starved of oxygen." Wow, talk about a fun-killer.
But his "us" group doesn't seem to have the answer, either: "You'll be damned to be one of us girl / Faced with the dodo's conundrum" (later it becomes the "android's conundrum"). His view of human existence? "We come in doing cartwheels / We all crawl out by ourselves." Okey-dokey.
But you gotta give the Shins credit -- they make their audience think, and the dialectic between the light-hearted, jangly pop music and those droll-yet-bleak lyrics is irresistible. Maybe it's just a knee-jerk neurotic indie-band frame of mind; maybe it's all tongue-in-cheek; maybe Mercer himself is a nut case. (Wouldn't be the first.) Either way, to me the happy-go-lucky lilt of this song wins out in the end. "So give me your hand," he sings merrily in the last verse, "And let's jump out the window." A break for freedom -- or suicide? Well, let's hold hands and give it a go.