A Luscious Mix of Words and Tricks: The Shins’ “Oh, Inverted World” at 20

Revisiting one of the most unlikely hit records of the early 2000s.

I’m trying to imagine what it would be like if The Shins’ breakout debut Oh, Inverted World were released today. What would be the reaction? Would it become the rare positive main character of music Twitter for the day? The weekend? The year? Best New Music laudits, a half-dozen profiles, commercial and film syncs out the wazoo? Or would it, as has been the fate of so many good to great albums over the last half-decade, become the proverbial fallen tree in the forest, muted by the deluge of downed pines? Oh, Inverted World is, afterall, an inherently modest record, one whose charms—of which there are many—are lowercase in nature. Part of me wants to believe its blend of elegant simplicity and pop-hook mastery are timeless, that any generation would bend to the record’s amiable will. 

But while its charms may be timeless, popularity and specific cultural impact are not. Oh, Inverted World arrived out of nowhere, but right on time, marking the moment when Sub Pop met indie pop, becoming one of the most unlikely hit records of the 2000s. To comprehend how this little half-hour record by an unknown songwriter from Albuquerque, New Mexico by the name of James Mercer made such an impact, you have to understand a few things about the alternative/indie rock landscape of the moment and the legendary label who was able to ride it’s coattails to another two decades of relevance. Sub Pop may feel like a totem of independent music, an institution birthed by a boomer, nurtured by generation X, and brought to fruition by millennials, but in reality there are actually two versions of Sub Pop with a distinct line of demarcation, and it isn’t an overstatement to mark this as pre- and post-Shins. 

You’re likely familiar with both, but to summarize in general terms, the Before Shins era is highlighted, of course, by Nirvana, that ubiquitous cultural touchstone whose legacy includes several other ambiguously categorized grunge bands all hailing from the same previously forgotten corner of the Pacific Northwest. After-Shins Sub Pop is something different. This was the Sub Pop I was familiar with as a late-millennial: sensitive and a little bit twee with ample spoonfuls of straight pop. It’s not a coincidence that The Shins share many of these signifiers. Even those closest to the label acknowledge how essential The Shins were to Sub Pop after grunge’s boom and equally colossal bust of the last-’90s. 1998 to 2000 are often described as the label’s “dark years,” and it’s pretty clear these would have continued until an eventual complete blackout had it not been for the influence of bands like The Shins and their successive sonic brethren including The Postal Service and Iron & Wine. We’re used to the idea of labels powering a small, discreet indie band to success, but we forget the opposite is often true. 

Looking at this situation in the inverse, does Oh, Inverted World take off in the same way without Sub Pop? It’s hard to listen to this record without at least hoping that answer is yes. It’s important to mention again how damn charming this record truly is, but equally important to remember how much this charm is rooted in sincerity rather than sarcasm or liberal-art wit, making it an outlier of the indie rock of the time. “This is way beyond my remote concern of being condescending,” sings James Mercer on album opener “Caring Is Creepy,” staking his claim as neither pissed off, sardonic, or morose, but romantic in a kind, wistful, endlessly endearing, notebook-margin-poetry sort of way. Mercer is harmless but not pathetic, clever but not arrogant, somehow staking a middle ground between Belle & Sebastian and Pavement in a way that filled a significant hole in the early-2000s indie landscape. 

But all the context in the world doesn’t make an album hold up as well as Oh, Inverted World. For that, all the credit must go to the songs. “It’s a luscious mix of words and tricks,” sings Mercer later on “Caring Is Creepy,” successfully capturing the twin pillars of this record’s greatest achievements. We’ll start with the words which thread an awfully thin needle between highfalutin ambiguity and evocative, captivating imagery. The latter brings us moments like when Mercer compares his muse’s lips to “the valleys and peaks of a mountain range on fire” on the swaying ode to love “Girl Inform Me,” or the de facto title track “One by One All Day” which imagines the “inverted world” of a life “cradled softly in the hands of some strange and gentle child.” Sure, not all these lines fit neatly, but like a needlepoint pillow of non-sequiturs Mercer’s breezy, low-key charisma is comfortable and familiar in a way that renders specifics moot.

Ironically, the more absurd moments come to a head in what is probably the greatest song the band’s ever written, the “change your life I swear” breakout single “New Slang,” whose most memorable line is something about the “king of the eyesores” which, yeah, I have no clue either. But let’s be honest—it really doesn’t matter, due in large part to those luscious tricks I touched on earlier; the layered strumming, the way Mercer’s vocals sink and swim in the mix from word to word, that swirling solo that tucks everything in with a kiss on the cheek. It’s a song that still transcends no matter how many times you’ve heard it. The back half of the record continues to expand some of the band’s more adventurous palettes. It’s in these moments you most notice the improvements made here by mastering engineer Bob Ludwig. “Girl on the Wing,” with its echoing synths and punchy percussion, is perhaps the most satisfying of the bunch, forgoing the pop structure of much of the record for something more dynamic.

So while trying to transpose Oh, Inverted World onto the landscape of 2021 might be impossible, there’s really no questioning how well this record continues to hold up. Charm like this simply doesn’t age, even if the rest of us do. FL

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