The Shins – Oh, Inverted World
Released June 21st, 2001 on Sub Pop Records
Produced by James Mercer and The Shins
Peaked at #14 U.S. (Vinyl Record Sales)
“Know Your Onion!” (#42 U.S. (Hot Singles Sales), #154 U.K.)
Sub Pop Records is famous for having moulded the “Seattle Sound” in the late Eighties and the early Nineties, consciously so. The label patterned themselves after the regional-to-global success of Motown in the Sixties and found success by being the early adopters of bands like Nirvana, Green River, Soundgarden, and Mudhoney. The bands all went off to find bigger success on major labels and in the end so did Sub Pop; the label sold a 49% stake to Warner Bros. in 1995. After the semi-merger with a major label, however, the label had the same problems that many of its bands experienced: diminishing returns on major label money. The latter half of the Nineties found them without any Big Names and releasing decent enough records, but nothing that was wowing the world. In that whole period, the only standout albums are Sunny Day Real Estate’s LP2 and Red House Painters’ Old Ramon, which suffers from the fact of its association with Mark Kozelek.
Then at some point in the late Nineties a band from Albuquerque named The Shins embarked on a tour with a band that had some underground clout growing named Modest Mouse. Shins leader James Mercer and MM’s Isaac Brock got along well and Brock took the task of shopping cassette demos of Shins material around to various labels. Mercer himself sent one to Sub Pop. The label, hungry to change up their sound, expressed some interest and gave them a spot in their Singles Club. This was Singles Club 2.0, of course; the original version of the singles-by-mail service had died in 1993 but the revival had begun in 1998 and would continue until about a year after “New Slang” was included. “New Slang” caught a lot of people’s ears on that mailing list; the people who received it shared it and hyped it up until the band’s debut record became one of the most hyped underground records of 2001 (the year Is This It? came out, remember).
Oh, Inverted World delivered on the promise inherent in that first single. It did away with indie rock’s need to paint everything in six layers of irony with footnotes, like musical David Foster Wallace clones. At the same time it didn’t swing completely in the other direction – that was saved for Arcade Fire three years later. Instead, James Mercer showed a willingness to open up a little – to be earnest where it counted, and to be opaque when it was necessary. This, backed with some seriously melodic tunes, made them the toast of the indie world for most of the 00s and made Oh, Inverted World an album that everyone else would be forced to try to play catch-up with (the bands that weren’t trying to be The Strokes, anyway). The inclusion of two songs – “New Slang” and the heart-grabbing opener “Caring Is Creepy” – on the Garden State soundtrack made every quirky would-be slacker or Manic Pixie Dream Girl into a Shins fan, as well. For a brief moment in the early 00s Natalie Portman could utter a line like “Have you heard the Shins? They’ll change your life” and have it be absolutely believable. Once upon a time The Shins could change your life, and from the sound of indie rock afterward they clearly changed a few.
Sub Pop originally would have been happy if the album had sold 10,000 copies – that would have been a marked success. Instead the album went Gold, as did the follow-up Chutes Too Narrow and my personal favourite Shins record Wincing The Night Away. To date Sub Pop has six Gold records on their roster, half of them Shins records. 2012’s Port Of Morrow probably would have followed – it peaked at #3 on the Billboard 200 – had people not thrown over buying records for streaming (the five year break between it and Wincing The Night Away probably didn’t help). James Mercer has also filled his time with other items, including two albums as Broken Bells with Danger Mouse. All of the above notwithstanding, the mixture of mid-Sixties sunny pop with sparkling indie rock drums and guitars that characterized Oh, Inverted World was the real life-changer; everything else followed from there, both for Mercer and for indie rock in general. As I’ve alluded to above, there were two paths you could take as a broad, commercially-minded indie rocker after 2001: Shins or Strokes. Strokes bands probably partied more, but ultimately my gut says Shins bands had more fun.