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Forgotten, underestimated, misunderstood: the American rock quintet The Shins from Portland, Oregon, is completely unknown in many parts of the world. Although everyone has heard fragments of their music before, many reviews and classifications fail to grasp the meaning of an indie rock narrative like that of The Shins. Their interplay is still effective today—in the music of others.
Many opinions and chance observations of the Shins reveal a kind of narrow-minded view of their work. This is part of a long tradition of short-sighted negotiations by cultural arbitrators in music. The group around James Mercer has been declared an over-hyped indie rock cliché from the beginning (and still is to this day). But that doesn't do justice to the cultural and historical importance of the band. Popular music critics have failed to place the Shins in a larger context of music history in order to capture the importance of the band once and for all. Mercer and the Shins deserve credit for their work. However, that never really happened.
On closer inspection, the past reveals much. The term “indie rock” is a rather imprecise term that only covers the genre broadly. First and foremost, “indie” has always implied the importance of maintaining artistic control over your music. In its beginnings in the 1980s, the genre encompassed a variety of interpretations of dissonant and melodic sounds by many pioneering and independent record labels. Indie rock at that time was far from what is known today among award-winning genre representatives like the Arctic Monkeys, The Strokes, or others. Bands like these had an inherent innovation, which the Shins eventually established subtly with their debut.
The indie rock of the time had an equally dynamic development in the United States and the United Kingdom towards two completely different musical perspectives. On one side of the Atlantic, it was the emotional clatter of Sonic Youth coming up from the deep canyons of New York. On the other, an expressive melancholy of red brick houses in the cold and wet streets of Manchester. That made both bands the gatekeepers of the genre and influenced everything in the 1980s, 1990s and whatever came next. So did the Shins.
The innovation of the Shins consisted in gently leading indie rock in the direction of melody and thus opening up the genre—which was often exclusive at that point in time—in the form of appealing and pretty pop songs. A chance to redefine the genre with melodies and lead it into a new era. One might assume a sort of “romantic indie rock tale” happened to The Shins when looking at the band superficially. But it is precisely with such a narrowly circumscribed view that the critics fail to recognize The Shins' historical and social significance. They’re often simply declared to be just another indie rock band, who warped the genre to emphasize the melody and create cute campfire moments (A great example of music criticism that tends to narrow the perspectives of fans and observers alike). As a result, the music always loses some of its meaning. The Shins are not to be seen as a central campfire culture. They are ambitious musicians who established themselves as one of the most important bands of the new millennium and made great music that will live on forever.
The Shins navigated the previously described indie rock locations and united American and British styles. In this way, various countercultural music scenes became one with their music. Mercer's lyrics touch on topics like fate, conformity, authenticity and a world full of philosophical and economic nonsense. He paints a portrait of individual fears, questions about human nature, and free will in the modern world. Songs lyrically package the complexity of life in a sound of unconventional and precise melodies. Above all, the life story of James Mercer enables the band to offer such an understanding of life in their music; the perspective of a cultured and intelligent outsider who tries to adapt and so processes the turmoil of his own existence. This is the result of such a complicated story called life.
The Shins were never the reductively immodest indie pop band they were proclaimed to be. With their varied arrangements and serious themes, it must be noted that The Shins’ ambitions go beyond those of the stereotypical indie ethos. In many ways, they are passionate curators of sophisticated pop music trying to create timeless and unique rock music.
In order to understand the meaning of The Shins—who have undoubtedly been misjudged by genre-oriented analyses to this day—the clichés of typical cross-genre music criticism have to be rethought. Reviews of this kind do not only discount the artistic ambition of a band or a musician, but they also suggest that genres, and in this case indie rock, are solely relevant to selfish and privileged observers.
The music of James Mercer and The Shins shows that convincing countercultural art can emerge from worlds apart, melding the socially significant musical styles of today and yesteryear. With their extraordinary songs, they offer listeners sophisticated, sensitive observations of modern life. And designed as a beautiful, intricate, and melodic pop alternative that make The Shins a unique, humble, formalistic indie pop band of popular culture. Forever more than just a rock 'n' roll cliché.
By the way: If you would like to exchange ideas with other musicians about bands like The Shins or just want to get your opinion off your chest, take a look at the mukken community page, our own little social network!
Originally published on November 17, 2021, updated on July 20, 2022