top of page

Presented with Comment: Who is Today’s Best Lyricist? Pt. 2

It is time for our Sunday piece, Presented with Comment, where each week Michael and Nicholas La Torre take a turn engaging in a debate over alt topics of interest and gauging the audience's views on the issues at hand. To do this, the authors will present examples to support their opinions and not only get the audience's view on the two sides presented, but seek feedback from the audience on alternatives as well. While half-heartedly agreeing with Michael on a topic just so I could have an opportunity to write about some of my favorite artists, I realized that this topic is one that could undo me. Throughout years of music fandom, I have learned that lyrical analysis is not one of my strongest points. I tend to be more of a listener of melody and feel rather than actual interpretation of the lyrics. With that being said, there are two bands/artists that I think are doing amazing things for Alternative music and even I cannot ignore their lyrics. One, is the band Alt-J, specifically Joe Newman. The shear ability for this band to retell stories of historical significance and touch on pop culture is incredible. Upon further thought, I decided that for this article, I would rather go with someone with a larger catalogue. Insert James Mercer of The Shins and Broken Bells fame. James Mercer: Mercer is the founder, lead singer and songwriter, of the indie band, The Shins. His side work with producer Danger Mouse has also propelled his career and shown his versatility in stylings. Mercer has been making music professionally since the early 1990s. Throughout his time with The Shins, there have been a carousel of members who have rotated in and out of the band. Mercer has remained the driving force who keeps feeding the band’s cult following. Style To me, Mercer has always teetered along the lines of absolute brilliance to the rantings of a mad man. His ability to juxtapose melody and lyric is honestly what turned me on to Alternative music in the first place. Upon first listen, most of his songs seem to tell a story, but in the most complex way. You may think you have gathered the meaning of the song, but once compared to what the actual meaning was behind the song, may find you were way off. Not that it is a bad thing because what is music if not what each person wants it to be? Pocket Full of Smiles….or is it?

While performing with different groups, Mercer has a habit of leaving his style on whatever he does. Anyone who is familiar with his work can identify his voice and style quickly. The songs follow typical traditional structure with a heavy element of “pop” that most pop artists wish they could achieve. No matter the topic, the songs sound like you could put them on in the background and enjoy the happy melody. Pop on any Shins record and you can almost feel yourself being pulled into a happier time. I liken the lyrics and melody to a modern Beach Boys with more intricate story telling. It’s easy to forget that Mercer may actually be talking about topics much darker, such as a fictional young, lesbian couple who have to deal with the bigotry and lack of understanding in a high school in a small town (Phantom Limb). Not exactly sunshine and rainbows, is it?

Phantom Limb

This song does an amazing job of taking a topic that seems straightforward and veils it in personal memories and subtle references. The couple referenced above are dealing with the stares from disapproving faces while concealing a relationship that may not actually be much of a secret at all. The “phantom and the fly” walk the halls of the small town school, going through the motions to not raise suspicion, but really they would rather be anywhere else.

“So when they tap our Monday heads Two zombie-walk in our stead This town seems hardly worth the time And we'll no longer memorize or rhyme Too far along in our climb Stepping over what now towers to the sky With no connection”

They know they don’t have much time left there and feel no connection to a place where they are supposed to have roots. They can’t back down now so they continue following the expectations of those around them. Red Rabbits

This was the first Shins song I ever heard. A good friend of mine introduced me to the track and from the first few moments, I was hooked. What drew me in was the electronic, bubbly tune that made me feel like I had stepped into an Alice in Wonderland experience. Once Mercer gets going, you realize that what he’s actually talking about (at least what we think he’s talking about) is much deeper and potentially darker. Mercer has hinted, vaguely, that the song is about broken relationships. The biggest theme I can pull from the words is that of helplessness. There are not-so-subtle tones of rebellion, which ultimately lead to failed efforts. Perhaps this is the lens I’ve always chosen to view for my interpretation, but I also feel there are references to abortion within the relationships referenced.

“And the necessary balloon lies a corpse on the floor…”

“Out of a gunnysack fall red rabbits Into the crucible to be rendered an emulsion And we can't allow a chance they'd restore themselves So we can't make it easy on you”

As others have speculated, the balloon could reference a broken condom and the pending abortion with all the anxiety and moral struggle that come along with it. I always felt this was the closest way into the human element with the lyrics. This song is without a doubt a serious puzzle that highlights the extensive vocabulary and complex intricacies you get from Mercer.

Simple Song

Here, we are finally promised a song that does not require several migraines to break it down. The lyrics seem to come from a place of complete joy, where the person (most likely Mercer himself) has learned to love from his soulmate. The anxieties and fears that fill the rest of his catalog are finally wiped away and he can enjoy what most people strive for their entire lives. He realizes that love is more than a charade and dancing around each other to not upset the other person. It’s about shutting away the outside world and enjoying what you have.

"Remember walking a mile to your house Aglow in the dark I made a fumbling play for your heart and the act struck the spark You wore a char on the chain that I stole Especial for you Love's such a delicate thing that we do With nothing to prove Which I never knew"

Per the usual, Mercer hits us with what are either incredibly vivid memories of the past or a limitless imagination. He has a way of making the song personal to himself, but also feel personal to us. The references vary between specific and broad so as to make each listener invested in the story because we could have had the very same stories ourselves.


At times, I think songwriters attempt to sway us with complex narratives and often overly nonsensical wordplay to give the song meaning when it may lack real foundation in the first place. Mercer has a way of making each of his songs carry different meanings to each of the listeners. When listening, fans feel as though they are a part of his world and that even if he does not share ours, he understands it. The investment I feel when I listen to his music is what makes his brilliance shine. The songs are just complex enough to force each person to have to find his or her own meaning, because you will likely never hear about the real one. While we picked out only a few songs, one could peruse the entire catalog and see how Mercer connects his characters from various songs with interweaving timelines and situations. To me, Mercer is a modern day poet and deserves any accolades he has received or will receive in this business. I would venture to say more modern artists have drawn some sort of inspiration from him than we may ever know and we are lucky to have a writer with his talent for not only this generation to enjoy, but for many generations to come.

88 views0 comments
bottom of page