In Simple Song, the lead single from The Shins‘ upcoming album Port Of Morrow, James Mercer is in a nostalgic mood. ‘When I was just 9 years old,’ he sings, his voice animated by a characteristically playful yelp, ‘I dreamt that I saw/your face on a football field/and a kiss that I kept under my vest’. It’s classic stuff from Mercer, who seems to reflect on childhood with a regularity that would intrigue anyone with even a passing knowledge of Sigmund Freud.
I’ve often wondered if, should he get the chance, The Shins’ frontman would go back to his oft-romanticised youth (perhaps not that far) in order to alter one particular moment that must rank high on his list of life-changers. In a now-notorious scene from Zach Braff’s film Garden State, Braff’s character asks Natalie Portman what she’s listening to on her adorably oversized headphones. ‘The Shins’, she replies, before the fateful proclamation: ‘This song will change your life’. As Braff gazes dreamily at Portman’s rather hilariously gurning face to the soothing strains of New Slang, already loyal Shins fans cringed in abject horror. No more could Mercer & co be the happy little secret of high-school indie kids everywhere, and the fanbase exploded overnight with the film’s release.
The sky has been the limit for Mercer since then. The two Shins records since their debut Oh, Inverted World have seen them largely abandoning the recorded-in-a-basement aesthetic of their early sound in favour of highly produced jangly pop, more recently laced with synths and drum machines in the excellent Wincing The Night Away. A collaboration with superproducer Dangermouse in Mercer’s Broken Bells side-project appeared to pre-empt the eventual disintegration of The Shins’ original line-up, as various band members departed in somewhat uncertain circumstances.
It appears, then, that the pressures of success and fame have made their mark on James Mercer. Would he trade all those extra records (and that bizarre ad deal with MacDonalds) for the consistency and camaraderie of his old bandmates? The lonesome introspection of Broken Bells’ album would suggest that success often sits heavily on Mercer’s skinny shoulders, but Simple Song shows a more stoic approach. ‘I know that things can really get rough when you go it alone’, he sings, but this is no expression of regret – it’s more of an acknowledgement that it’s not all worked out as planned, and a commitment to keep sailing through choppy waters (a recurrent theme on Wincing The Night Away).
Mercer has indeed gone it alone, playing most of the instruments himself, but anyone fearing a conversion to the new musical pastures heard on Broken Bells need not be alarmed. The music is unmistakeably by The Shins, with the chimes and warbles of keyboards and psychedelic Wincing-era sound effects knocked around by an energetic clatter of guitars that evokes the highest points of the band’s early work. In many ways, it’s an interesting mix of the melodic but noisy pop of their debut album and the more heavily produced sound of their most recent one, largely ignoring the acoustic folk-rock vibe of Chutes Too Narrow. Such a blend allows Simple Song to occupy a distinct and original position within Mercer’s back catalogue, but avoids any radical change in sound like the one that made Wincing so surprising.
Ultimately, Simple Song should satisfy The Shins’ faithful fans while remaining equally exciting to new listeners. Mercer is proving adept at shaking up the bittersweet cocktail of emotions that makes his band so special – his reflective and often gloomy lyrics are delivered with joyous abandon, and the music shimmers with a barely-restrained, youthful energy that belies his age. There may be less of them, and there may not yet be any significant steps forward in their sound, but I’m utterly delighted that The Shins are back.