The Shins’ James Mercer is not a cook. He writes spiral notebooks full of delicate pop songs that feel like a thumb-race through a World Book Encyclopedia, if encyclopedias dealt only with human emotions and the methods for sussing them out.
Want to concoct a great pastry? Go ahead and ask a master baker to describe to you the precise reasons why his apple dumplings blow all of the other bakers’ apple dumplings out of the culinary water, and you’re likely to get an answer. Things like pastries are measurable and identifiable. The ideal amount of apple with the right dash of sweet can be defined to the chunk or the nearest milligram. Cooking options have already been trial-and-errored by generations of kitchen scientists to ensure the optimal amount of heat for goldening. It’s all very simple.
The Shins’ James Mercer is not a cook. He writes spiral notebooks full of delicate pop songs that feel like a thumb-race through a World Book Encyclopedia, if encyclopedias dealt only with human emotions and the methods for sussing them out. He gets into everything, knitting some of the most gorgeous creations on the band’s first record, Oh, Inverted World, and raising the stakes even higher on their latest, Chutes Too Narrow, out this month on Sub Pop.
But he can’t explain how he does it. To talk about it is to not have had it in the first place, apparently. The songs that owe their lives to Mercer come to him as electrical surges, causing the television and computer screens in the neighborhood to flicker while his eyes light up with reflection. They’re the unexpected guests that he never knew he wanted to drop by until they do. And he treats them so well. He dresses them up in clothes that they never thought they’d look good in or be able to pull off in a social setting.
“You don’t even know why you’re doing what you’re doing,” Mercer said of the writing process. “You’re so in it. You’re so close to it.”
He’s uncomfortable talking about the way he writes and the way he laces outdated vernacular, á la Eli Cash’s “Wildcat!” moments in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, with happily wordy developments of his own machination, neither like nor dislike anything the best in song has ever seen before. He’s as uncomfortable as I and my 20-something brethren would be uncomfortable talking about world trade policies—members of Coldplay aside—or discussing the bitches of the aging process with the senior citizen of our choice. It’s understandable, since trying to explain songs like the ones The Shins bring into existence is like trying to describe a color. You know, it’s…red.
He’s been accused of being cryptic with lyrics like “But when they’re parking their cars on your chest/You’ve still got a view of the summer sky/To make it hurt twice when your restless body caves to its whims,” but damn if we don’t need more of that. Would we rather everyone wrote using those poets from Good Charlotte as muses, penning songs that all go something like (as their latest hit goes) “Girls don’t like boys, girls like cars and money/Boys will laugh at girls when they’re not funny”? It’s nice that Mercer isn’t offended by such criticism and instead chooses to challenge both the listener and himself. “I’m not insulted by it,” he said. “It would be too boring if it was real straightforward. It’s a selfish thing. I want it to sound interesting to me.”
On Chutes Too Narrow, the band, jointly out of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Portland, Oregon, goosesteps right by what they accomplished with their critically lauded 2001 album, which was made possible with a support spot on a tour with Modest Mouse and the prodding of Sub Pop artists Love As Laughter.
“I remember having a conversation with my folks that I was going to make one final push. I’d never really pushed before,” Mercer said. “I thought, ‘Well, shit, I’ve got these songs that I really like. I’ll record them and see if I get anywhere with them. If not, I’ll go back to college and figure something out.’”
Those songs that Mercer recorded were different from the ones the group was playing as Flake Music, a band started in 1993 that primarily ripped through sets full of rockers. These new tunes concentrated on the art of pop, sneaking in things that the Beatles and other Brit acts did instinctively.
The procession from those early demos to the songs on Chutes has taken Mercer to places where less is utilized to make an even bigger dynamic. A shopping spree (depending on how you define spree, that might be the wrong word) since the last record brought newer and fancier equipment into Mercer’s basement recording studio, and not being in an apartment with neighbors on all sides gave the band the ability to make an album that they wouldn’t have been able to make two years ago.
“I wanted it to sound a lot better. I wanted the songs to be more well-rounded. I was a little bit more serious about this one,” Mercer said. “I think maybe I got more comfortable with my singing. You could just hear everything through the walls [of the apartment back in Albuquerque where Oh, Inverted World was recorded]. They weren’t hearing the music; they were just hearing me randomly scream. Having my own house, I was able to scream at three in the morning, and no one could hear.”
All of the locational circumstances are evident in the new record, where Mercer sings with some hellfire on tracks that may have simmered out as tepid whimpers on the old album. Even with the technical and musical improvements, Mercer hasn’t a clue how people’s pulses will take to the new album. “Man, I don’t know [how fans will react],” he said. “It’s hard for me to say. Maybe Shins fans won’t like it.”
Much of the magic and imagination that drip from Mercer’s songwriting may have been planted early on as the son of a regularly re-stationed army officer. Born in Hawaii, Mercer and his family moved many times, but for three years in Germany, he lived in a house that offered him and other army brat buddies a backyard forest that “went on forever.”
“It was great having that playground where everything was up to you,” he said. “I’d come home from school, throw my books down, and go play in the forest until it was dinnertime. I’m definitely happy I was moved around a lot. I don’t know what I’d be like if I had lived in Alabama my whole life.”
Being free to explore as a child and find things on his own also has kept Mercer’s mind free to wonder. “I think I see a lot of beauty in things,” he said. Living in the Northwest, Mercer has become a gardener, pruning his camellia tree and working the earth as he and bandmates Marty Crandall, David Hernandez, and Jesse Sandoval ready themselves for a cross-country tour to show off the new album. “In Portland, you spend a lot of time just digging weeds,” Mercer said.
It’s the same thing he does inside his home, which sits in an old craftsman-style neighborhood. He’s weeding out the bad and leaving the beauty for all of us to enjoy.
The Shins will play Columbia’s Blue Note on Friday, November 21.