The Shins: “So Now What” / James Mercer’s Saving Grace

2017 has been a banner year for 2000’s indie zeitgeist-dominating blog rock. We’ve already gotten albums from Fleet Foxes, The xx, Phoenix, Dirty Projectors, and Grizzly Bear, with full-lengths soon to come from the National and LCD Soundsystem. It may come as a surprise to you, due to the relative lack of fanfare, but the Shins actually released a new album this year as well, just a few months ago. I guess they aren’t changing many lives anymore.

The record, entitled Name For You, is pretty unremarkable. It’s not bad per se, but it doesn’t come close to capturing the same sense of possibility and whimsy that defined James Mercer and the Shins of the 2000’s. “Kissing the Lipless” thrills you, “Pink Bullets” drips with potent melancholy, and that underwater synth line on “Sleeping Lessons” is magical. Even Port of Morrow, released in 2012 with a brand new lineup after a five-year hiatus, was solid all the way through (check out the insanely fun “Bait and Switch” or the leisurely and rewarding “40 Mark Strasse”).

Name For You is bland though. Songs like “Painting a Hole” and “Half a Million” are fine enough, demonstrating some interesting sonic touches, but where’s the emotion? Where’s the sense of wonder? It’s all so run-of-the-mill, and it makes me sad.

HOWEVER. There’s one song on Name For You that stands out, called “So Now What.” The track was actually first released three years ago, as a part of the soundtrack for the 2014 Zach Braff movie Wish I Was Here. It makes complete sense that “So Now What” was written long before the rest of the album. Mercer must have been riding a creative high in 2014 that didn’t hold over. “So Now What” is not flashy or attention-seeking, but the mid-tempo groove and simple melody have staying power. Mercer’s voice drifts through the clouds, dreamily singing “I had this crazy idea / Somehow we’d coast to the end.” At their best, the Shins are a band that can take you places other than where you’re currently sitting, and cause you to think about life and relationships and the past. Mercer couldn’t do it for a full album this time around, but at the very least, I’m glad we have “So Now What.”

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