Home Music The Shins: Oh, Inverted World (20th Anniversary Edition)

The Shins: Oh, Inverted World (20th Anniversary Edition)

In 1998, philosopher T.M. Scanlon asked us a question: “What do we owe to each other?” Three years later, an album was released that — now 20 years on — forces us to ask ourselves a very similar question: “What do we owe to Zach Braff?” A review of Oh, Inverted World, the debut album by The Shins, presents a puzzle: should you shrug off the legacy left behind by proto-Manic Pixie Dream Girl Natalie Portman when she forced Braff’s character to listen to the still-outstanding “New Slang” on her comically-large headphones in Garden State? Do you confront, head on, the impact that movie (and its still-bulletproof soundtrack) had on indie rock? When Portman excitedly declares that “New Slang” is going to change Braff’s life, was she aware of the fact that, in saying it, she would forever change the lives of James Mercer and the other members of The Shins?

By the time that scene arrived, The Shins weren’t exactly a new band, and Oh, Inverted World wasn’t a new album. “New Slang” was already just enough of a hit to float breezily across episodes of “The Sopranos” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and even “Scrubs,” as well as McDonald’s advert that forced the band to confront claims of being “sell-outs” long before the rest of the world really came around to them. In fact, their follow-up, Chutes Too Narrow, was a year old by then, and the band had already moved on to playing “So Says I” to Rory Gilmore and a bunch of drunk spring breakers on an episode of “Gilmore Girls.” This is all to say: Oh, Inverted World had a whole lifespan before Braff, in his infinite cool-indie-movie-guy wisdom, slotted “Caring is Creepy” and, yes, “New Slang” into the soundtrack for his first foray into trying to prove to the world he had more emotional depth than what was portrayed by his hit medical-comedy “Scrubs.” Honestly, the fact that his goofy shadow hangs this large over Oh, Inverted World is insulting to how damn good the album is — even if it really, probably does have to be talked about.

Forget all of that. In fact, forget about how unspeakably old it makes you feel to be reading a review about a 20th anniversary reissue of this album. What matters the most is the actual album. The good news is that this isn’t just a reissue, but a remaster — Mercer’s original production has here been replaced by a complete rework at the hands the incomparable Bob Ludwig, ushering the record into a legacy of Sub Pop acts given their sheen by the maestro. If you already own a copy of the original version: I’m sorry, but you’re going to need to buy it again. The remaster adds so much more depth that was missing from the original, sometimes tinny-sounding Mercer mix, and shockingly, it makes it a better album than it already was.

And boy, even aside from that remaster, the album holds up great. Oh, Inverted World’s only substantial flaw is that it does absolutely nothing to reinvent any wheels. Instead, it settles for strong, well-constructed indie-folk that feels great to sing along to, and rocks out just enough to get you bobbing your head and dancing around your kitchen (depending on the song). It’s still one of the most comforting things about it: there’s safety in these songs, and some of them feel like you might have really been listening to them all your life. You don’t need to have browsed records at the Birmingham Mall for “Know Your Onion!” to feel like it was written for you, who could have been described as “Shut out, pimpled and angry” — and that’s without even getting into the laughably Beach Boys-y “Girl Inform Me” and its charming self-awareness of not having any idea how to successfully chat up cuties at parties. Who hasn’t been there?

It’s also impressively tight; at just 11 songs in a svelte 33 minutes, Mercer & Co. distilled everything great about their brand of gentle folk rock and trimmed out absolutely any fat they could find. Songs like “Weird Divide” or “The Celibate Life” could pass the two-minute mark, but would they be better with that extra time? And would the five-plus-minute closer “The Past and Pending” be a better song if it shed some of its weight? Of course not — much like every single song on Chutes Too Narrow or the oft’-misaligned, always underrated Wincing the Night Away, the time given to each song is exactly what they need. Why fuck with perfection?

Okay, maybe it isn’t right to call Oh, Inverted World “perfect.” After all, there’s plenty to gripe about: the fact that it plays it safe, fails to innovate, gave Zach Braff reasons to think he was able to control the zeitgeist. In fact, the act of writing about the album at all is an exercise in safety: the album is just beloved enough to be worthy of a 20th anniversary retrospective and reissue, but it’s tame enough that talking about it isn’t even as daunting as it can be to write about, say, Amnesiac’s 20th anniversary. Here’s the thing, though: Oh, Inverted World is no less charming, fun, and comforting than it was in the pre-9/11 space it was released in. Albums never need to be groundbreaking — or even need to become mega-famous without the help of sitcom-stars-turned-artistes — to be great. And even though James Mercer’s Shins didn’t break the mold, if these songs changed anyone’s life, it was a profound success.

The Shins’ beloved debut album gets a shiny new Bob Ludwig remaster in honor of its 20th anniversary. Yes, you read that right — and we’re sorry we made you feel so old by telling you about it.
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