“Do you ever get tired of something because it’s just everywhere?” asks The Shins frontman James Mercer. “Then you start to see all the imitators and you get nauseated by it. I guess that’s my mood right now.”
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Indeed, it sometimes seems like pop music trends tend to move in periodic circles. Last decade saw the reemergence of folk music à la late 1960s/early 1970s. Now with a president who’s a reality TV star and social media changing life as we know it at hyperspeed, things seem to be veering back toward the absurd, petulant sarcasm that was omnipresent during the Reagan years.
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The secret of a successful pop star is to pick up on the contemporary mood and stay one step ahead. Mercer has spent the last 20 years reacting to indie-pop vogue and making a name for himself by doing something slightly different.
“I think I was somewhat rebelling to that on this record. Right now, I’m wanting to hear stuff that’s fun and uplifting in a way that’s not taking itself too seriously.”
“In the late 90s, the tendency in indie rock was to do stuff that was really snarky and tongue in cheek,” he says. “It was never earnest. Everything was half a joke. Weezer and Pavement are brilliant examples of this and I lived on those bands in the 90s. You’re young. You don’t know what to do so you imitate what you love. But at some point, I started to get a little annoyed by the copycats. I suppose that’s how fashion works. Once something is ubiquitous, you shit on it.”
In response to the prevalent sophomoric cynicism, Mercer set out to record something more heartfelt. He put out two critically acclaimed indie albums at the turn of the millennium on the Sub Pop label that did remarkably well by a word of mouth.
“At the time, I wanted to do something earnest, something where I was being vulnerable,” he says.
The approach worked and his unique brand of sensitive indie pop came into the national spotlight when, in the 2004 movie, “Garden State,” Natalie Portman’s character handed Zach Braff’s character her headphones and said, “You gotta hear this one song. It will change your life, I swear.”
Just like that, “New Slang” was a worldwide indie phenomenon. Scores of successful indie folk acts such as Iron and Wine, Fleet Foxes and The Head and The Heart followed suit. But since that time, Mercer’s ever-changing mood has again shifted. At this point, he’s ready for something new.
“Now I’m feeling this pseudo-earnestness is ubiquitous and cloying and it kind of drives me nuts,” he says. “So, I think I was somewhat rebelling to that on this record. Right now, I’m wanting to hear stuff that’s fun and uplifting in a way that’s not taking itself too seriously.”
The new album, “Heartworms,” is just that — an upbeat, flippant, hooked-filled project that still undeniably sounds like The Shins.
“I guess it’s time to put your tongue back in your cheek,” Mercer says.
Mercer’s poignant and lyrical songwriting has always been influenced by his emotional ups and downs. Although his lyrics can be viewed as intensely personal, they have always had a looking-into-the-fishtank-of-the-world-from-the-outside quality to them.
“I’ve been feeling really good lately,” says Mercer. “It’s funny how it comes at certain times and it’s hard to predict. I think that I’m totally f***ing fine until something heavy happens. But being busy the way I’ve been helps. It makes it easy since you don’t have to deal as much. I can see how people with certain issues become workaholics so they can escape what they’re feeling. I think that I’ve got a bit of that. There are probably a lot of good chemicals out there nowadays that would help, but then I’d have to stop drinking beer.”