The Shins – “New Slang”

Released: 6.9.01

Peak: Did not chart

How cloying, we clucked, how earnest, for Natalie Portman to claim that a silly little indie-pop tune could “change your life.” By which we meant, of course, how unenlightened of that elfin naïf to suggest that a band as ordinary as the Shins could do that. Maybe if her headphones had bled “Idioteque” or “Get Ur Freak On,” we’d let it slide. But this modest guitar-bass-drum shuffle? Please.

By which we meant, of course, fuck Zach Braff–always an unimpeachable sentiment. And by “we,” of course, I mean “you.” Old enough not to feel the sting of how its mythmaking got my life wrong, I could enjoy Garden State for what it got right. And the idea of indie rock as a signal from some distant, non-suburban world is one thing Braff nailed (along with the inability of so many post-collegiate Jerseyans to afford moving out of their parents homes).

Re-rewind time a spell–not just far enough to erase Scrubs from existence, but to predate the ease of downloading that made any curious music fan a potential omnivore–and remember the effort it once took to listen past the suburban static of mainstream Top 40. (The preferred term these days is the less anachronistic “chartpop,” but I’d rather be mistaken for a geezer than a Anglophile.) With its vague contempt for current circumstances and no less vague yearning for something better, “New Slang” hovers prettily to the left of the dial as a beacon of unthreatening strangeness for kids still stuck at home.

And though James Mercer’s collegiate deadpan does indeed suggest more intelligence than it expresses, that’s no cause to give him more grief for portending the current wave of genteel indie-folk earnestness than beloved drips like Elliott Smith or the Beck of Sea Change. If his jumbled, idiosyncratic imagery masks just how mundane his emotional circumstances actually are, “I’m looking in on the good life I might be doomed never to find” is direct enough to invite identification, if not to you-know-what your rhymes-with-strife. Like his modestly talented competition, Mercer has to smack a tune dead square on the nose for it to linger. Here he does.

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