The Shins’ ‘Oh, Inverted World’ turns 20 – a look back on the quietly game-changing debut album
Pick up the just-released 20th anniversary remastered edition of Oh, Inverted World on black vinyl.
There's a cliché in pop culture that decades don't really start in the -0 year, they start in the -1 year. The -0 years always feel kinda transitional, some mix of the new decade starting and the previous one ending, but the -1 years tend to be full of landmarks that usher in soon-to-explode trends. That's definitely true for music in 2001, a year that birthed pivotal albums across several genres of music, like rap, emo, nu metal, metalcore, dance music, and indie rock. In the '90s, indie rock meant music with a lo-fi aesthetic, a slacker attitude, a sense of detached irony, but by the mid 2000s, the word took on a few other much different meanings. Indie rock was swept by the garage rock and post-punk revival, kickstarted in part by 2001 classics like The Strokes' Is This It and The White Stripes' White Blood Cells. But there was also a softer, prettier side to indie rock, one that traded in slacker detachment for earnestness and lush arrangements. Bridging the gap between '90s indie and the more baroque sounds of the following decade was The Shins' 2001 debut album Oh, Inverted World.
By the time The Shins came into existence, band leader James Mercer had already cut his teeth in the '90s indie rock scene as frontman of the band Flake Music. Flake, who existed from 1992 to 1999, was very much of its time and influenced by prototypical '90s indie bands like Superchunk and Pavement. But James had started writing gentler songs that pulled from '60s pop and didn't fit in with Flake, so he started recording them on his own -- almost entirely in his bedroom (before bedroom pop had become a big thing) -- and The Shins were born. James burned some of the early Shins songs onto 100 CDs after Isaac Brock asked them to open some Modest Mouse shows, and The Shins eventually became an early Napster-era success story after fans bought those $5 CDs at shows, uploaded them onto the file-sharing service, and watched them spread like wildfire. Sub Pop eventually released "New Slang" as part of their Single-of-the-Month series, and after the song took off, the label gave the band a proper record deal and released Oh, Inverted World in June 2001.
As with any musical trend, there's never one individual artist or album that starts it, and there were other artists who helped push indie rock towards prettier arrangements and classic pop songwriting before Oh, Inverted World like Belle & Sebastian and the Elephant 6 collective, both of whom James Mercer has cited as influences. The way James told it in a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, he wasn't trying to set any trends, there was just a growing feeling within the collective consciousness that indie rock needed to go in this direction. "I think a lot of other bands were feeling the same thing," he said. "I think there was this craving for some earnestness."
By the time The Shins really blew up -- when Zach Braff included two Oh, Inverted World songs on the soundtrack to his 2004 film Garden State and worked the band into the plot of the film ("It’ll change your life, I swear") -- there were countless fast-rising bands making earnest, delicate-sounding indie rock. But when Oh, Inverted World came out three years earlier, The Shins were doing something that felt startlingly new. When you watch live videos of The Shins in their early days, they still kinda look like a '90s indie rock band, but their music was tapping into something that most of their peers weren't. And even if Oh, Inverted World wasn't the first '60s-pop-inspired indie rock album of the new millennium, it was at least the first great one. Listening to it today, it plays like a greatest hits. It's home to several of the band's biggest and most-loved songs ("New Slang," "Caring Is Creepy," "Girl Inform Me," "Know Your Onion!," "One by One All Day") and even the deep cuts feel like stone-cold classics. There's not a weak link on the record. The whole thing feels so intentional, so meticulously crafted, but still modest and humble like indie rock was in the previous decade. Oh, Inverted World doesn't sound like it was recorded by a band who knew they could become the biggest band in the world, like, say, Arcade Fire's Funeral does. It feels big yet small. It feels like a secret that everyone eventually got in on just because it was too good to ignore.
With the intent of creating something that clearly stood out from Flake Music, Oh, Inverted World was a little bit lo-fi out of necessity, but you can tell that James was pushing it to be as hi-fi as possible. The guitars and keyboards are clean, James' voice is smooth and melodic, and his words are both poetic and conversational and roll off his tongue without an ounce of irony. He and a few guest musicians fleshed the album out with xylophone, autoharp, harmonium, cello and French horn. And their secret weapon was Jesse Sandoval's casually great drumming, which gave them just a bit of a harder backbone than you might've expected from music of this ilk. There's obvious influence from The Beatles and The Beach Boys, both of whom had been massively influential on alternative music long before The Shins came around, but The Shins tapped into that influence in a way that felt new. They pulled from those bands' circa-1965 records, when they were starting to get more serious but still looked clean-cut and were only subtly psychedelic. Tons of bands sounded like Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper's. The Shins sounded like "Girl Don't Tell Me."
Oh, Inverted World not only changed James Mercer's life and the landscape of indie rock, it was also a game-changer for Sub Pop. It helped the label officially shed its reputation as a "grunge label" and it opened the doors for Sub Pop to eventually sign bands like Iron & Wine, The Postal Service, Band of Horses, Wolf Parade, Fleet Foxes, and Beach House, establishing the label as as much of a powerhouse during the 2000s indie boom as they were during the '90s grunge boom. "It’s hard to overstate how impactful that record was. It gave the label contemporary relevance beyond grunge," said Sub Pop publicity director turned general manager Chris Jacobs. "One of the most striking things about it was how much artists across the genre spectrum loved it." That last point is an important one; Oh, Inverted World wasn't just for fans of clean-cut pop music, it united the punks and the indie rockers and the folkies and the emo kids and all kinds of people interested in all forms of underground and above-ground music. That's because the music itself was a little bit of everything: smart but sensitive, accessible but rebellious. "The most punk-rock fucking thing I could do in my life was something like 'New Slang,'" James said in a 2012 interview with SPIN. It might not seem that way now, but when quiet was the new loud, it was revolutionary.
For its 20th anniversary, Sub Pop just released a newly remastered version of Oh, Inverted World. Grab it on black vinyl in our shop.