June 19, 2021
James Mercer and company know how to name a song, almost as well as they know how to write one. Looking at the track listing alone you immediately know that you’re in for some of the most cleverly written and book-ish albums of the 21st century (see: “Caring is Creepy,” “Pressed in a Book” and one of my personal favourite song titles of all time, “Know Your Onion!”). This album turns 20 years old today so I thought it would be as good an opportunity as any to revisit the seminal album that inspired the past two decades of indie rock.
I was immediately pleasantly surprised by how artfully messy the whole record sounds. I adore the later Shins albums for their immaculate baroque pop style, and Oh, Inverted World has plenty of hints at that, but there is a layer of naive charm and fuzz that pours out of every moment here. It’s much more musically diverse than I remember delving into eerie and atmospheric sound effects amidst the more straight ahead folk and rock tunes.
The intro track, “Caring is Creepy” is verbose in a way that perfectly appeals to anyone who would willingly choose to use the word “verbose.” The intricate layers of descending synth lines that pop in and out hint at the musical exploration that will be perfected on 2004’s Chutes Too Narrow. However, here it sounds more grounded and casual. The band is tight, but playful. “Caring…” transitions smoothly into the hip, jangly R.E.M.-adjacent “One by One All Day” and then the Spanish-tinged folk of “Weird Divide.” The stylistic diversity of the Shins is already out on full display, but this is just a taste of what’s to come later on.
The middle section of the record is maybe its strongest part. Both singles “Know Your Onion!” and “New Slang” find themselves intertwined with chiming twee pop masterpieces “Girl Inform Me” and “The Celibate Life.” This is James Mercer fully flexing his songwriting muscles, but the production here is also unbelievably detailed and emotive. “New Slang’s” trembling, Galaxie 500-like guitar solo captures the nervous, yet worldly lyrics just as the jagged lead guitar on the back half of “The Celibate Life” leans into the teenage angst of it all.
The final leg of the projectis its most experimental. All of the songs here are full of strange, sometimes eerie sound design. From children laughing to unidentifiable and echoed clicking to modulated drum and percussion layers, “Girl on the Wing,” “Your Algebra” and “Pressed in a Book” are intriguingly unsettling yet gorgeous tunes. The record closes with “The Past and Pending.” It’s a more stripped down ballad to begin with, but it slowly layers in more and more instrumentation until its collapses into itself in emotional exhaustion. Like a black hole localized entirely within Portland, Oregon that had a really long day. It’s a beautiful ending to a disparate and sometimes dense array of indie-rock sounds.
Oh, Inverted World as a whole is inspired, warm indie rock perfection. This is the ideal album for the start of the summer and it has aged impeccably throughout the 20 years since its release (not the least of which because the world is as inverted as ever). It’s a certified classic.
“Weird Divide” is summer-y as fuck. The smooth subtle drum machine, the reverb heavy vocals and flamenco-inspired guitar all combine to create an ethereal, timeless track. It’s Gorillaz circa Plastic Beach meets Dylan’s “Desolation Row” and my only complaint with the song is that it’s over too soon.
“Know Your Onion” with its unmistakeable guitar intro and anxious youthful angst was the soundtrack to 14-year-old Jimmy Gibson’s entire existence. There’s something alchemical about the instrumentation. The drums, bass and guitar meld perfectly together but retain their fuzzy, “we’re not over-producing this thing” credibility. Toss in a classical musical interlude and you’ve got yourself the makings of a nice little onion song
What is there to say about “New Slang” that hasn’t already been said? It floats along with its deceptively inventive rhythmic structure and cutesy percussion layers, simultaneously tearing your heart out with devastatingly evocative imagery of bleeding bakers, cursed towns and dirty fries. It’s… kinda pretty good.
“The Past and Pending” has the best french horn solo in the history of folk music. Eat your heart out Neil Young. What a way to close an album.
Rating: It’s a classic
Genre: Indie rock, folk
Listen to this if you like: Sufjan Stevens, Dr. Dog, Wolf Parade