It's been several years since The Shins gave us Chutes Too Narrow, which makes their upcoming LP Wincing The Night Away one of my most highly anticipated albums of 2007. And now it's the second sentence of a blog post about The Shins, which means I am required to make a Natalie Portman or Zach Braff joke here. Let's just pretend I did and move on, because the truth of the matter is that while "New Slang" and Natalie Portman became clichéd after Garden State, the emotional resonance of that song remains.
It is that emotional resonance that makes The Shins' music compelling. And while these guys are no longer your favorite "unknown" band, they retain that magic that made them everyone's secret find once upon a time.
"Phantom Limb" is everything you love about The Shins, evolved. The tambourine is there, but so is a hazy synthesizer that thickens the song and gives it a bit more of a mainstream feel. The bridge rises and crests until hitting a falsetto that I'm not entirely sure I like, but that works inside the framework of the song. The wordless chorus generates a mood that most will connect with 2001's Oh, Inverted World. James Mercer's words are sad and tell of a lonely guy doing depressing things in a lonely town and they would probably make you cry if the music didn't uplift even as the lyrics break down. It is an interesting case of juxtaposition, blending enthusiastic sounds (for The Shins, at least) with a melancholy story constructed on bizarre imagery (including the phantom limbs of sheep walking across snow) and acknowledged truths.
The end result is another fantastic song from the prototypical college/indie/soundtrack band. Yes, it sounds like something you might hear on The O.C. or Laguna Beach or, of course, the next Zach Braff movie, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. And while The Shins are surely bound for a meteoric rise in popularity after the pop culture imprint made in the "this song will change your life" scene, the heart and soul of this band is unchanged. This is still the music that changed your life, on some small level, long before Natalie Portman told you it would.