“You gotta hear this one song. It’ll change your life, I swear.” I won’t pretend I listened to the Shins before their breakout moment in Garden State. I discovered the band along with everyone else: When Natalie Portman dumped headphones on our ears and pressed play.
That film was released the same year I graduated high school (2004), and I will always relate to it in a special way. It’s a story about personal empowerment through self-advocacy and self-discovery. About returning home a stranger. About serendipitous explorations into the infinite abyss. Imposing content, if you will, for a graduating senior.
The Shins were the marquee group on that soundtrack. And even today—regardless of their incredibly strong discography—I still primarily associate the band with the film and the film’s themes, i.e., fleeting, beautiful life, and the hope of youth.
Consider the current narratives surrounding James Mercer and my sentiment sounds like hogwash. The frontman and sole remaining member is getting older and slowing down. He has kids. He battles depression and anxiety. He drinks whiskey alone at a piano (see current PR photos). For the Shins, there’s no point in playing well with others, so now he does everything himself and hires musicians for the road.
Sad, lonely and dark.
Walking into the show in Spokane on September 24, I let this narrative dominate my expectations: The Shins would be a shell of what they once were. James Mercer would be there, sure, but probably in a bad mood and perhaps out of spite. He would squirm at any mention of Garden State, and opt only to play Heartworms, their latest record—a vibrant collection of ‘70s-influenced psych-pop, but so far the fans’ least favorite—from start to finish.
But the James Mercer I saw did none of those things. He was playful, spirited and connected to his audience. Not the most talkative of frontmen, but surprisingly relatable. Mercer’s defining characteristic, however, was his work ethic: The man had a job to do. Five studio albums with a laundry list of singles, deep cuts and fan favorites meant the Shins had to grind through long stretches of songs without saying much in between just to fit them in.
At times, Mercer’s job did feel like work, especially on older tunes. It’s apparent the Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow material doesn’t quite connect to Mercer like Port of Morrow and Heartworms does. Watching him perform these older songs reminded me of a conflicted Sisyphus, progressing forward enough only to roll backwards to where he first began. Of course, maybe that was just the narrative influencing my thinking.
Photos by Erick Doxey
Throughout the evening, the band carried strong. This iteration of the Shins, featuring Yuuki Matthews (bass), Jon Sortland (drums), Mark Watrous (guitar, keys, vocals), Casey Foubert (guitar), and Patti King (keys), makes an impressive group. Sure, it would have been great to see James Mercer play with Martin Crandall and Jesse Sandoval, two former longtime members, but that’s a life that’s in the past. This version of the Shins isn’t concerned with living up to any sort of expectation. Like Mercer, they simply have a job to do. They’re there to play hard and inject much-needed fresh energy into the material. Drummer Sortland was especially fun to watch.
Despite being a Garden State fanboy, I am actually a big fan of the band’s later material. Port of Morrow is my favorite Shins’ LP, and in the week leading up to the show, Heartworms had grown on me (or in me?). I assumed Mercer would go the easy route and build a set upon Wincing the Night Away. It’s the middle album that bridges the older Modest Mouse-y kitch with the later, radio-friendly polish. The perfect middle ground for fans old and new.
But besides “Australia,” “Phantom Limb” and “Sleeping Lessons,” Wincing the Night Away was nowhere to be found. And in perhaps the most surprising move, “Phantom Limb” was reworked and performed at a much slower tempo with a fun, loud payoff at the end. It was one of the few signs Mercer could color outside the lines, a much-needed revision in the middle of what occasionally felt like a jukebox playing the hits.
The set featured five songs from Heartworms. All of them were highlights of the night with the exception of “The Fear,” a moving, beautiful song, but played at too late an hour for me to truly appreciate. The infectious, upstroke-heavy synths of “Name for You” got the audience dancing. “Painting a Hole,” the psychedelic drone with a funky, driving beat, took on a fresh coat when the band swelled into a chaotic and industrial finish. Live, the song is closer to Nine Inch Nails than maybe Mercer realizes. “That solo gets better every night,” he said after the song ended, out of breath and smiling.
The band played “Cherry Hearts” for the first time, which was apparently a testing ground for their upcoming performance on The Late Late Show with James Corden. “We had to figure out how to play it,” Mercer began to explain before thinking twice about it and moving on. It’s a trippy song that prominently features video game synth and offbeat drumming. Like “Painting a Hole,” it’s almost unrecognizable when compared to the studio version, but fun nonetheless.
For my money, the absolute highlight of the night was “Mildenhall,” a nostalgic trip back to Mercer’s teenage years when he had to relocate with his family to an Air Force Base in England (his dad was in the service). Mercer recalls his dad teaching him some guitar chords to “whittle away on the rainy days,” and a kid in class passing him a Jesus and Mary Chain cassette. “And that’s how we get to where we are now,” he croons.
It’s a quiet, sweet song and oddly forthright for a lyricist who previously favored poetic opaqueness over blunt transparency. While it’s normal for aging artists to revisit their past, here, Mercer seems to be scratching at something deeper—the critical role fate played in the little things. Maybe Mercer has realized his impact on culture. Maybe he’s trying to make sense of how it all happened. Either way, when he played it live, the band supported him with two violins and a woodblock. Mercer dialed in and was soulful. It was a beautiful rendition, and since previous setlists didn’t include “Mildenhall,” I considered my own fate while singing along.
The Shins are an act that exists because of its fans, not in spite of them. As if to cement the idea, in the encore Mercer led his audience in a singalong of the Garden State/Oh, Inverted World classic “New Slang.” It was the song we first heard in 2004 when a stranger dumped headphones on our ears and pressed play. Together we harmonized and carried the nostalgic melody long after Mercer’s guitar faded. His smile again widened, but this time Mercer’s arms opened wide as if to embrace the entire audience like family. “I’m onto you now,” he said. “You are the Shins. You are the band.”
Now that is a narrative I can believe.
1. Caring Is Creepy
3. Name for You
4. Kissing the Lipless
5. Mine’s Not a High Horse
6. Girl Inform Me
7. Gone for Good
9. Saint Simon
10. Painting a Hole
11. Cherry Hearts
12. Rifle Spiral
13. Half a Million
14. Phantom Limb
15. Simple Song
16. The Fear
17. New Slang
18. Sleeping Lessons