When I moved to Albuquerque, The Shins’ Oh, Inverted World went pretty quickly from being one of my most cherished albums, albeit one as strange and distant as my own dreamlife, to being a perfect, essential rendering of my adopted town. There’s no atmosphere here, nor much real weather, so our surrogate atmosphere is the cosmos, which extend all the way from the heavens down to the ground. Anything that grows here is framed by outer space. George Herriman understood this about the Southwest, and I think The Shins did, too, when they made Inverted World, so sunny, weird, expansive-yet-lost.
But still, it’s a bit delusional to call The Shins’ recent stop at Kiva Auditorium a “hometown show.” Albuquerque was the place in James Mercer’s well-traveled life where The Shins began, but it’s now very far from where he’s ended up. And, happy as I am to hear Inverted World as the sound of this place, others hear it as a pleasant but unaccountable outlier, or, worse yet, they hear only its end result, the mainstream success of which this city (or any city, probably; the successful must not live in town) remains forever skeptical. And then it’s even more delusional to imagine, as I often do, that an artist playing a hometown show, even one less tenuous than the gig in question, will turn it into an act of autobiography, bantering about his old haunts, the reclaimed charms of home, reasons for returning, evidences of change, etc. Mercer touched on none of this at Kiva, played a bunch of songs instead (of course), but there was one personal, local moment when he dedicated a slightly reworked “Fall of ’82,” a remembrance of dusty desert October and strength found in family, to his sister Kim, in attendance (now we know that line from the song’s bridge names a literal, not a spiritual, sister).
It’s one of the best songs on the new Port of Morrow, a great example of the album’s often conversational and plainspoken lyrics, its surprising and affecting sincerity. Saying exactly what one means to say is a risky lyrical strategy, but one that suits Mercer, who’s more generous and uninhibited with every album. With the exception of its big Hall & Oates choruses, “Fall of ’82” is almost melancholy in its humble, quiet way, its refusal to break beyond the limitations of human life on planet Earth. The band’s fine balance of soaring and sedate puts them at a disadvantage live, where the audience expects them to deliver only the big melodies—with the exception of a quiet, communal moment like “New Slang.” That song held everyone rapt, of course, but others, like the new album’s great, alien title track, where Mercer sings in falsetto about death and time, inspired more fidgeting inattention. Such reflective, unreflected moments were rare, however, the band focusing instead on all the show-stopping numbers one might reasonably have expected them to play.
Gem of the Mercer songbook, “Phantom Limb,” became a sing-along, which I expected, given the nature of its song-ending refrain, but didn’t want. Some songs give themselves so completely and really don’t need us to meet them halfway. (But, kudos to the band for respecting album sequencing and preceding the song with “Pam Berry,” as integral to its success as Pale Saints’ “There Is No Day” is to “Hunted.” Remember that for the SATs.) Later, the band did the typical thing with encore-ending “One By One All Day,” breaking it down to build it back up, but accomplished this in a more compellingly musical way than the average, going so quiet as to totally hide the continuation of the meter from the audience, and then creeping back like magic from that agitated void. “One By One” fared best of all the Inverted World selections. Mercer is much too sophisticated a showman/producer/arranger/sound technician at this point to bend back and recapture his earlier, more fragile and untested moments. His impressive touring band came prepared mostly for The Shins’ rare full-on rock ‘n’ roll moments (like the big explosion of main set-ending “Sleeping Lessons,” extended live into multiple victory laps) and the luxe sheen of Port of Morrow.
A review of the new album, in Under the Radar, stated the album “brims not so much with melodies, but melodic content.” That’s a decent distinction to make, and one that maybe ought to be made more often, but it applies not at all to Mercer, who continues to write some of the most fully developed melodies and lyric sheets this century (a real Lennon-McCartney-Costello, this guy, not some misnamed imposter, and always with an eye on the one all-encompassing super-melody that will constitute his remarkably consistent songbook). I think what Under the Radar meant to describe, with those words, is the music of Mercer’s current tourmates Washed Out, who dazzled Albuquerque more with their light show than with their wisps of free-floating song matter. It pulses pleasingly, this matter, and gestures toward emotion, but I feel comfortable speaking for the audience and saying that none of us were taken in by it.
Sad Baby Wolf, who earlier caught my attention at Low Spirits, have probably not been much tested in auditoriums, but they sounded even better there than in a bar. They filled the extra space, with sound undiluted. (I heard otherwise from another attendee, but I’ve always been taken with the cavernous-bordering-on-hollowness in rock ‘n’ roll, which is a crucial component of Sad Baby Wolf’s slight shoegaze tendency.) And it’s a great surprise to learn how quickly I’ve assembled their songs’ melodic content into melodies: Almost everything they played I recognized immediately from a single previous hearing. They’re looking for a home for their debut album, and I hope they find it soon, because their songs are becoming familiar enough to be essential.
Kissing the Lipless
Caring Is Creepy
Know Your Onion
Bait and Switch
The Rifle’s Spiral
Fall of ’82
So Says I
Port of Morrow
No Way Down (Encore)
??? (Encore) (does anyone know what this was?)
One By One All Day (Encore)