I’m going to make a big statement. A statement that is going to have half of Williamsburg sharpening their pitch forks in anticipation of turning me into a big slab of human tofu. Ready? Okay, here it is: I’m kind of glad The Shins are on a break and won’t be releasing any new music until at least next year.
Now, before you start sticking pins in the voodoo doll version of me, please consider that I do love The Shins. “Caring Is Creepy” is one of the top 25 most played songs in my iTunes, “Phantom Limbs” was my favorite single of 2007, and “Australia” is the first track on my “Alex’s 20 Songs That Changed His Life” mixtape. When Natalie Portman famously put the band in the mainstream spotlight with her ode to their music’s power and ability to “change your life” in Garden State, I was totally on board. I own all of their albums and, just like I’m sure you love to secretly do as well, I thoroughly enjoy pouring myself a glass of cabernet, lighting a few candles, drawing a bubble bath, and putting their three records on shuffle.
Have I proven myself to be enough of a fan yet? Good. That means that you’ll trust my judgment more when I say that (The Shins’ front man) James Mercer’s new collaborative effort with Brian Burton (better known as Danger Mouse), Broken Bells, makes the band’s hiatus worthwhile.
As that’s sinking in, consider how this scenario has already played out in contemporary music history. Death Cab For Cutie is undeniably one of the best bands of our generation, yes? However, when lead singer Benjamin Gibbard went out and created a little side project called The Postal Service in 2003, their (only) album “Give Up” became an instant masterpiece – a genre defying work of art that changed the face of indie music and is still now, seven years later, viewed as one of the most influential records of the century thus far. While Death Cab is brilliant, does anyone really regret Gibbard’s temporary absence from the band while he was working on The Postal Service? I think not.
What makes Broken Bells’ eponymous debut album so successful is that rather than it being a departure for Mercer’s signature melancholy indie-pop/rock sound, it serves as a testament to his musical maturity. The record automatically acts like the next chapter in his aural autobiography, documenting the evolution of his artistry. He takes the sound he already so craftily mastered with The Shins, and combines it with Burton’s ethereal beats, creating a record intricately layered with everything from guitar, piano, and organ to synths that provide gorgeous and often subtle electronica backdrops to the tracks.
The album opens with its triumphant first single, “The High Road.” As is the case with most of Mercer’s writing, the lyrics are full of complexity and are open to broad interpretation rather than dictating a straightforward narrative. To me, the song reveals the harsh realities of feeling unfulfilled and disappointed after giving into social pressures and constructs, creating a life that’s expected of you rather than one that’s resulted from a self-directed path.
“Cause they know, so do I, the high road is hard to find. A detour in your new life, tell all of your friends getting warm, it’s too late to change your mind. You let laws be your guide,” Mercer croons over Burton’s skillful synths and percussion. Here, Mercer sings of that big goal we spend our lives trying to achieve. But rather than allowing that high road to be something we discover on our terms, it often is paved for us by social expectations – going to college, getting married, finding a 9-5 job, having children, white picket fences, etc. Would these be the same set of dreams the vast majority of the population set for themselves if they weren’t the guidelines set forth by a society to fit its definition of what’s “acceptable” and “accomplished”? If so, why do so many people strive for this social normalcy when it ultimately becomes something suffocating they must rip themselves away from in an attempt to seek true happiness?
Mercer and Burton use this song as a platform to advise people to be autonomous rather than dependent and reliant on fulfilling social roles assigned to them at birth, due to class, race, gender, or whatever else binds them to a certain expected identity. It is a method of warning people to live their lives in a sovereign way and ensure that if they do decide to act on these roles, that they’re doing so in a way that remains true to their own definition of “the high road,” instead of simply caving into pressures.
“Come on and get the minimum before you open up your eyes, it’s all being served in your hands,” Mercer sings, recommending living life in a free way - learning things on your own and constructing your own identity, rather than letting what’s handed to you define who you are. If the suburban townhouse and the Volvo with the “my child is an honor roll student” bumper sticker that flashes on the way to dropping off your son at Little League is who you are, then that’s great. But the song warns us to make sure that we are who we are because it’s empowering and self-fulfilling, not because we let our identities be molded by social and patriarchal traditions or expectations placed on us – otherwise, the consequences will be personally torturous.
While lyrically the rest of the songs are equally full of social commentaries and rich metaphors, they don’t all read like storyboards to Sam Mendes films (c’mon, if American Beauty was released eleven years later than it was, “The High Road” would have been the perfect song to play during the final credits). Something else that makes this album work so well is the musical variety within it. Mercer and Burton successfully wrote and recorded ten songs that are all distinctly different, while still creating a cohesive narrative that flows flawlessly from track to track. For instance, “October” is a mid-tempo, piano heavy alternative rock number that comes immediately after “Citizen,” a highly experimental electronica track that sounds like an ode to the contrasting sounds an electric keyboard is capable of producing. The sounds of these two songs are unarguably different, yet the structure of the record as a whole allows them to transition into one another seamlessly.
While it is immensely difficult to select a favorite song in such an immaculately compiled tracklisting, “The Ghost Inside” takes the cake as the strongest cut on the record. Although the two songs don’t sound much alike, Mercer’s smooth falsetto over Burton’s swift beats reminded me of Antony Hegarty’s brilliant 2008 duet with Hercules Love Affair, “Blind.” Both songs combine mid-tempo impressive male vocals over up-tempo electronic rock instrumentation, creating stunning cross-genre collaborations.
So while you’re anxiously marking off your calendars for 2010 to go away so that 2011 rolls around and you can have a new record from The Shins, I hope you realize that not all hope is lost. Yes, the band’s lineup may be changing. Yes, you’ve been waiting since 2007’s “Wincing The Night Away” for a new album. Yes, when you heard James Mercer was doing a side project you wondered if he was going to pull an Andrew McMahon (of Something Corporate/Jack’s Mannequin fame) and make his side project his main project, bringing (dare I say it?) an end to The Shins. But rest assured my little hipsters: The Shins will indeed be back soon enough.
So, in the meantime, let Mercer trade in his acoustic guitar for a synthesizer, and give him a chance. I guarantee you will not be disappointed with the outcome. And if worst comes to worst, you’ve still got that bubble bath to sink into while listening to three pretty near-perfect albums that as Natalie Portman said, will “change your life.”
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