It can be a real drag to get a song, even one that you like, stuck in your head when you’re out walking around without only enough of the lyrics committed to memory to plague you with what you can’t remember. I notice that when I’m hiking or even walking around town, the rhythmic sensation of my feet hitting the ground is like Velcro, attracting the least likely and/or desirable song and leaving me stuck with it for hours. Kind of like how the giant sand worms in Dune are attracted by and attack rhythmic pulses; one minute I’m walking around minding my own business, the next I’m ambushed into dealing with an interminable medley of Earth, Wind & Fire songs and only about a dozen half-remembered lines to go around.
Another thing that drives me nuts is not having a lyric sheet at hand when I’m listening to an album and having trouble picking certain lines out of a particular song. I listened to this Shins album non-stop the whole time I was either driving or sitting on the train during my vacation last month, and upon returning home to the jewel box and lyric sheet (the CD came in one of those fancy carrying cases with the plastic sleeves), I was mighty surprised to find that the understanding I’d arrived at had very little to do with what was actually printed there.
I should mention that I’m terrible at making out lyrics unless they’re rendered in firm, declarative sentences. In fact, at best I only catch about 75 percent of what’s going on, and that’s if nobody is yelling, before something in me shuts off and I start half-interpolating, half-imagining the rest. It’s always been pretty bad, but, since you ask (wait, didn’t you ask?), it’s gotten a lot worse since I started working at this paper and generally approaching new releases with reviewing them in mind.
Yes, so anyway: Up there in the wilds of Manitoba, I had to make do. I listened the hell out of Oh, Inverted World, often stopping the same track halfway through and starting it over ten or more times before moving on, and I’m here to tell you it’s about the best thing anyone’s laid on me all year. No kidding! The lyrics are something you can study for yourself, but ev en when I had them only three-quarters figured out I was thrilled to hear a number of things that delight me personally, not just about the Shins, but about jangly pop music in general.
One: A hang-up with British pop and figures of speech peculiar to British English, and a knack for adapting them to the American pop topos without sounding like a bunch of pretentious twits who spent the summer Interrailing around Great Britain and came home pretending to have picked up British accents. Maybe it’s just that “Know Your Onion!” could easily have been a song written for the Kinks by ’60s pop duo Chad and Jeremy, but a whole picket of primo Briticisms occur within a few seconds of each other in the course of this dazzling, and I mean virulently catchy, two-and-a-half minute gem. Cripes, it’s just perfect! Perfect!
Two: I love it when a songwriter makes clever little modifications to the catchiest part of the song as it pops up a second or third time. Again, to use “Know Your Onion!” as an example, the second time this line comes up, “It was undeniably clear to me I don’t know why,” it becomes “It’s been undeniably dear to me I don’t know why.” It shares an internal rhyme with the first appearance of the lyric (at 25 seconds into the song), but with a minute and a half elapsed in the interval it hardly needed to. It’s like being rewarded—twice—for the easy task of remembering a part of the song that’s hard to forget in the first place.
Three: On a similar note, it’s a special treat when a catchy refrain also advances the lyrical content of the song in a new and exciting way. On “New Slang (When You Notice the Stripes),” a tune with a lingering Simon and Garfunkel vibe, the third verse is cut short after two lines and its contents emptied into just such a catchy refrain. (Hmm. These might strike you as rather recondite pleasures from a simple pop album, but hey—it’s little things like switcharoo choruses that keep me coming back for repeated listens!) Four: I LOVE it when backup vocals present new information before the lead vocal. The Artist (Formerly Known As) [Prince] blah blah blah was always especially foxy at writing vocal parts with this kind of reversal, and I for one just can’t get enough of that crap. The Shins never do this in a very straightforward fashion, but there’s a chorus on “The Celibate Life” that comes really close to being that good—maybe even better, because the structure of the song sets the chorus up in a way that makes it seem to come half as often as it should, and when it comes it comes triumphantly: “Before we take this ride and let it slide/into the cracks where fall and winter collide/I surrender all my gall in a song of modern love/Remember you’re the one who summoned me above any other kind.”
I wish I could adequately express how beautiful it is when the lead vocal sprouts into an umbel of three vocal tracks on the last line It’s a 600-pound pop moment. Sigh. I could go on and on.