Saturday, May 12, 2012

For A Fool / The Shins

The Shins . . . well, come on, we all know they're good. That's the orthodox music geek line, isn't it? And yeah, I've liked them ever since I first heard "New Slang" in the movie Garden State; having a song in The Sponge Bob Movie ("They'll Soon Discover") just gave them more indie cred.  (What is this indie cred stuff, anyway?  Can you spend it at the store?)

But for some reason, I didn't really fall in love with the Shins -- not in-love love, in my heart of hearts -- until this new album, Port of Morrow.  Frontman-songwriter James Mercer -- who, let's be honest, IS the Shins -- always struck me as impossibly clever and talented and post-modern-hipster cool. Clearly he didn't need me for a fan. Not one of My Special Bands.  

So I'm wondering -- did I get James Mercer wrong?  Or has he finally developed the kind of musical heart that I'm always looking for? Because Port of Morrow completely shivers me timbers.    

Just listen to this gorgeous track:

Why do I love it? Let me count the ways.  There's the loping rhythm, the twangy surf-guitar riff, the haunting theremin-like keyboard sigh woven into the background. And ohmygod, the melody, soaring like a seagull into Mercer's earnest falsetto. He doesn't have a great voice, it's true, but now he's really writing for the idiosyncratic wobble, creak, and swoop of his range. And dig the skipping syncopations, which Mercer throws in all over this album; it reminds me of how much better the Talking Heads got after David Byrne discovered his pelvis. 

Perhaps most of all, I sense that the Shins are finally producing Music For Grownups.  (I really gotta copyright that term.)  Clever Boy James Mercer is now rueful and wise in a way he just wasn't before.  "Young and bright / But now just a dim light / Off in the distance," he modestly describes himself; not a hero, but a "falling stone / Following the path / Of least resistance." He knows he's still making things difficult for his other half, but at least he can now put it into perspective -- "If I still fight, / It's just that I'm / Afraid I'll slide under that spell again." (Love how his voice slides upward to a panicky yelp on "spell again.")

I love how he can gently scoff at his own internal debates: " So many times / Caught up in my head at night / With a leash and a label."  And -- wow -- he's actually trying to adapt and grow: "If I can learn / Anything from this, then I'd be like / The fox in the fable." (For those of you who don't remember your Aesop:  The fox gave up trying to steal the vineyard's grapes, telling himself that they were probably sour anyway. (Which is where our catchphrase "sour grapes" comes from.)

But it's the chorus that really pierces my heart: "Taken for a fool / Yes, I was / Because I was a fool."  He's not making excuses, not blaming the other party -- he's taking a good hard look at himself and is willing to admit he blew things.  The melody skips downward, the rhythm stutters gently as he fesses up. But he knows he was a fool; he accepts full responsibility. That's the first big step to solving things between them.

Is this a love song?  Could be; doesn't have to be. Perhaps we'd better just call it a "relationship song."  But we have enough ooh-baby-I-want-you songs out there. A few more I-fucked-up-I'm-sorry songs -- that's all to the good.    


Anonymous said...

Holly, my dear Holly

Like I´ve always have been saying:
¨You write what I think¨


squeezingoutcolumbus said...

Holly---reading your posts is akin to taking an advanced music appreciation class.

Holly A Hughes said...

C'mon guys, you're making me blush! MrL, you're the one who insisted I really listen to this album, and I'm glad I did. ;)