Back in March, during Austin’s South By Southwest music festival, The Shins were already being touted as a band to watch, and their packed show that weekend only added to the stoked buzz already infecting certain quarters of the music industry. So, it was with both anticipation and a certain “show me” reticence that I approached their full-length debut, just out on Sub Pop Records. One track, “New Slang,” released earlier this year as a 7-inch single, was the song that created the buzz, a curious and spare western-inflected ode to melancholy that somehow managed to evoke both Simon and Garfunkel and Ennio Morricone. It is a stunningly beautiful, well-written song–strong enough to jumpstart intense interest in the band. I expected more in the same vein from the rest of the album; luckily, I was wrong.
The other tracks on Oh, Inverted World explore other influences, expanding the parameters of what The Shins can do. Although there is a strong element of late ’60s folk/soft-rock influence apparent in the songwriting, most notably “The Celibate Life,” lead singer and songwriter James Mercer has more in common with Elliott Smith and Jeff Mangum than Brian Wilson. Mercer’s solidly written but often inscrutable lyrics are richly evocative, reminiscent of songwriters such as Robert Pollard, or even Michael Stipe. Oh, Inverted World is full of delicately rendered imagery and the kind of concise one-liners that you can’t get enough of. Lines like “Girl inform me, all my senses warn me/Do you harbor sighs or spit in my eye?,” and “Gold teeth and a curse for this town were all in my mouth,” connect and stick with you. And when Mercer sings, “I’m looking in on the good life, I might be doomed never to find,” you know exactly how he feels.