Sunday, July 3, 2016

Oh, Inverted World - The Shins

Oh, Inverted World
The Shins
Sub Pop  SP 550

The debut album by the Shins is one of my all time favorite albums.  I can't believe it is already 15 years old, it stills seems so fresh to me.  The first time I heard the band was when I heard "New Slang" on the radio while driving to work.  It astonished me so much that I pulled over to listen to it more closely.  People make fun of that scene in "Garden State" where Natalie Portman tells Zach Braff "New Slang" will change his life but I get what she means (even though I also hate that scene.)  As was the case with Belle and Sebastian (who I fell in love with around the same time) I felt a strong personal connection to the Shins.  For awhile these two bands were the soundtrack to my life.  I listened to them all the time and when I wasn't listening to them I still heard their songs in my head.  All the songs on this record were written and sung by James Mercer.  The album begins wonderfully with "Caring is Creepy" which is an enigmatic song expressing alienation and unhappiness.  The song has a soaring melody driven by cascading keyboards and jangly guitar runs over which Mercer sensitively croons the words.  "One by One All Day" features the line that gives the album its title.  It is an evocative description of coming of age in a rural setting.  It is a rollicking song with a lot of propulsion that strongly appeals to me.  The music shifts dramatically for the languid melody of "The Weird Divide" which poetically reminisces about a past relationship.  The oddly titled "Know Your Onion!" recalls adolescent alienation and unhappiness.  I like the reference to favorite records and books being Mercer's only fun back then, I felt quite similar feelings for awhile as a teenager.  It features a punchy rocked up tune with a ebullient pop sound to it.  "Girl Inform Me" is a charming and neurotic love song that evocatively captures the anxiety of a new relationship.  It is irrestibly catchy jangle pop that fills me with joy whenever I hear it.  Side two opens with "New Slang" which expresses alienation from a town and frustration with an unrequited love in stunningly poetic verses that have always enraptured me.  It is a simple folk rock song but I find the melody haunting and mesmerizing.  Mercer's poignant vocal moves me immensely.  I consider it is one of the best pop songs I've ever heard.  "The Celibate Life" dissects an unfaithful girlfriend.  It is another captivating jangle pop tune that makes me feel good to be alive.  "Girl on the Wing" looks back wistfully at a disintegrating relationship.  It is a choppy rocker smoothed out with power pop sweetness that gets me bopping.  "Your Algebra" is a mysterious and slightly sinister song with an appropriately creepy melody that stands out sharply from the other tunes on the record.  It concludes with an odd coda featuring spooky keyboard music and children's voices and laughter.  The album returns to its normal sound with "Pressed in a Book" which is a prickly song that describes the tension between friends.  It is jaunty power pop with a pounding riff driving it.  The album ends with "The Past and Pending" which is a devastating account of a break-up loaded with powerful metaphors.  It is a gentle tune with a delicate arrangement.  It gives the record a sensitive and emotional finish.  Thus concludes an absolutely perfect record, an album that I consider to be a masterpiece.  Lyrically and musically it pushes all my buttons, I find it endlessly listenable.  I wish it had been around when I was an unhappy adolescent, it would have been my Bible.  For better or worse I'm far removed from that, but I remember it well and I think that is why the album still resonates strongly for me.  I'm always drawn to personal music and the way Mercer poured his heart out and drew from his experiences and alienation to create his songs is tremendously compelling to me.  To me that is what good art is all about.  Recommended to fans of early Belle and Sebastian.

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