The Great Divide

The Shins' James Mercer is just another underappreciated genius

James Mercer, a quiet, soft-spoken guy from Albuquerque, New Mexico, is helping save the music he loves best. He'd probably never tell you that, even if you decided you wouldn't hate him if he did (which you really couldn't do once you talked to him anyway). But take a listen to Oh, Inverted World, the new album by his band the Shins. Let its juicy-fruit melodies wash over you. Then take another listen. Soak in Mercer's strange voice, a sort of faded, rounded-off tenor that reaches much higher than you think it will. Listen again. Check between the guitars and find off-kilter synths purring and whistling in the corners. Again. Decode Mercer's weird little stories about grandpas and shopping malls and the like. Now compare it with whatever's on the alt-rock station right now. Sort of sounds like guitar pop all over again, doesn't it?

Of course, Mercer's not alone in the underappreciated-genius category. We've got hundreds of these guys sitting around that green room trading tall tube-amp tales. Robert Pollard and Doug Martsch just got elected club president for next school year. Sub Pop (which actually released Oh, Inverted World two months ago) is holding a convention in Seattle, untucked shirts and scruffy facial hair included. Mercer knows this. And he knows that I know that he knows, especially since his record contains so many underappreciated-genius totems: merry melodies, a strange voice, off-kilter synths, weird little stories. So how do I tell him that I think his band is great, that he and his buddies manage to make '60s-schooled pop sound vital or even visionary once in a while? At first, I stumble:

Albuquerque’s finest: The Shins are, from left, James Mercer, Jesse Sandoval, Marty Crandall and Neal Langford.
David Ondrick
Albuquerque’s finest: The Shins are, from left, James Mercer, Jesse Sandoval, Marty Crandall and Neal Langford.

Me: You guys really seem to be on this thing where you're making music that could be a sort of retro, really straightforward type of thing, but every time I listen to it, I'm like, "Wow, this could be a sort of retro, really straightforward type of thing, but it's not." What's up with that?

Mercer: I think there's a little bit in me that tries to make things interesting.

Obviously not his fault. I do a little better:

Me: I guess what I mean is, have you ever been content to just do really forthright, jangly guitar pop? Or have you always been more interested in the stuff that makes your music a little more distinctive, a little more odd? Like, does anyone ever bring a song into practice, and you're like, "Well, it's cool, but it's just too..."

Mercer: Straightforward? Yeah, definitely. There are times like that. And sometimes you try and repair it, and then you take away the whole reason you liked it in the first place, so you have to just kind of scrap the whole song. We've done that before.

Ah, there's the rub. For Mercer, the weird bits are the best bits. That's certainly true with what he's got to say, which reminds me of the almost impenetrable lyrics Daniel Bejar, the Canadian guy around whom the band Destroyer revolves, pens for his Bowie-leaning, faux-glam pop songs. But where Bejar pretty much road-tests his grad-school dissertations on his records, Mercer just sings about what he sees around him.

"With lyrics I generally try and stay away from clichés," he says, "and I think sometimes that makes things a little bit ambiguous. I think it'd actually be a lot easier to use clichés, and I think sometimes the things I'm trying to say have been said many times before, but I'm trying to say them differently. So sometimes I wander."

He does stray offtrack throughout Oh, Inverted World, but, like great poetry, in a way that makes you wonder how he could've gotten there any other way. "Weird Divide" might be the best example of this. Over a half-spooky, half-pretty acoustic shuffle that sounds a lot like something you'd expect to hear in a faithful re-creation of an Old West Halloween, Mercer sings about sex, something that, as he admits, has been sung about many times before. "Several days a month you made the mile to my house/And had me do a stroll with you/Far below a furry moon our purposes crossed/The weird divide between our kinds." A ways from "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" anyway.

I ask Mercer if he cares about being understood by listeners, if lucidity is as important to him as the beauty of his words. It took me four times to get "Weird Divide," and Mercer's understated charm's not helping me feel like the smartest person in the world.

"I think it's fairly important," he says on the matter. "I'd like to have happen what happened to me when I was a teen-ager reading the lyrics to my favorite bands, like maybe the Smiths or whatever." Definitely makes sense. Still, he laughs when I tell him the lyrics sort of have the same effect as one of those cheesy Magic Eye paintings, where the picture doesn't emerge until you've lost yourself in the seemingly random spray of ugly-colored dots. "That's unintentional," he says. "I think that's probably a product of the fact that I don't have that good a grasp on the language or something. I just kind of express these things, but without using clichés, so therefore it gets kind of tangled up."

That tangled-up aspect is exactly what makes Mercer's work vibrate past the historical impact of bands like the Apples in Stereo, who've made a virtue out of rewriting old Beatles and Beach Boys records, but with different chords in different places. Maybe it's Albuquerque, I wonder. After all, the co-presidents of this year's underappreciated-genius club, Pollard and Martsch, hail from two nowheresvilles themselves: Dayton, Ohio, and Boise, Idaho, respectively. How can re-creating oldies radio be interesting when all you've got is oldies radio?

"People seem to live here for a couple years and then move," Mercer says of the city. "And I think being in a band and having any success seems to make them move even quicker." So why have the Shins stayed? "I think probably because we really like this town and certain things about it." He thinks for a second and then divulges the true rationale, bringing it all into focus. "Our bass player is a hot-air balloon pilot, and Albuquerque is like the capital of the world for that, so he can't really justify moving. There were just things that kept us here."

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