On Thursday night, LeBron James pushed aside all his doubters, finally winning a championship, legitimizing his three-time MVP status. I was one of these dissenters, disliking the way he left Cleveland and his cowardly decision to rely on other stars to reach his goal. But in that moment after winnng the title, as he spoke of having to hit rock bottom and face his mistakes, I actually felt my dislike for the guy slowly fade. Yes, he made some horrible choices over the past few years, but did he deserve all the nationwide disdain? Maybe, maybe not, but his villain role certainly got overblown (Kobe will always be the true evil of the NBA). The media tends to dwell on disloyalty and selfishness in sports, but I feel the same can’t be said for the music media. That is why I would like to spotlight a story that has been swept under the rug, and draw comparisons as to why I think James Mercer is the LeBron James of indie rock.
Talented- There is no doubt that LeBron James is talented. Just watch his performance in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals or the way he dissected the Thunder in games 3 and 4 of the finals and you’ll see an athlete at the top of his game like Olajuwon in 95’ and Duncan in 05’. In terms of basketball history, he is the ultimate basketball specimen: a combination of strength, agility, and length working perfectly in balance with his court vision, shooting touch, and new found ability to post-up defenders at will. Last week we saw the cosmic combination of these skills working together in beautiful symmetry. After years of hype, the future of the NBA was finally realized.
James Mercer’s talent has been evident to most of the world ever since Natalie Portman proclaimed that, “The Shins will change your life.” Mercer’s lyrics have always been entrenched in strange imagery and clever word play, and his penchant for memorable melodies have remained a constant throughout his career (minus that whole Broken Bells debacle). When Mercer and his Shins broke onto the scene in the early 2000s, he presented a new mix of pop music, blending the jangly spirit of Pavement with the lyrical zest of Neutral Milk Hotel and the soothing quasi-baritone of Crowded House’s Neil Finn.
But, despite all the undeniable skills found in both Jameses, they have character flaws that unfortunately mar their performances for those of us who still care about doing what’s morally right.
Disloyal- The crux of my comparison between Mercer and James is rooted in the disloyalty both have demonstrated in the past few years. LeBron’s heel-turn is well known. After spending seven seasons in his home state of Ohio for the Cleveland Cavaliers, James announced he would be bringing his talents to the Miami Heat at a self-glorifying press conference called “The Decision.” After all the relationships formed and the amount of hope and belief put behind him, LeBron’s decision showed complete disregard for his teammates, the organization, and the city of Cleveland. Instead, LeBron joined the super team of Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh where they could reign supreme in South Beach.
A much less talked about show of disloyalty can be seen in the way James Mercer parted ways with members of his band, The Shins. Jesse Sandoval, Martin Crandall, and Dave Hernandez served as members of The Shins since the band’s conception ten years ago in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Over the past ten years the foursome recorded four albums together on the SubPop label, touring constantly as a foursome throughout. Then suddenly, without warning, Mercer decided he no longer needed his three bandmates, opting for a completely new band. He also decided to part ways with the indie label SubPop, creating his own label Aural Apothecary and distributing via Columbia Records. In a true sign of disrespect, Mercer decided to stick with The Shins moniker, despite the fact that he was the only remaining original member (this would be like Paul McCartney still releasing Beatles albums). Instead of going with a solo project, Mercer was told by his “advisors” that keeping the Shins name would help sell albums. And that’s what really matters, right?
Arrogant- In recent years, LeBron has been surrounded by an air of arrogance. From his nickname “King James” to his comments about haters, comparing his rich life to what he infers is their menial day-to-day lives. His choice to do “The Decision” was even a sign of blind arrogance, believing everyone would jump on the bandwagon the instant he made the announcement. From there, him and his new teammates projected that they would go on to win upward to six titles (Dirk Nowitski would prove a year later that their forecast wouldn’t be the easy sailing they once so confidently pronounced).
Mercer’s defense of his decision also reeks of arrogance. In an interview earlier this year he asserted,” It was always very much my project. It revolved around me. It was me writing the songs, and very much in control of the aesthetic of the records.” On face value, it would be difficult to argue that Mercer isn’t the captain of The Shins, his songwriting the propulsion behind their success. But to overtly claim the band as your own seems a bit hasty. One listen to the latest Shin(s) release “Port of Morrow” and it is clear that something is missing. That something would be three band members who were replaced by a revolving band of studio musicians. It sounds like a Mercer solo album, not a Shins album.
Easily Manipulated- I once liked LeBron. In his first few seasons he came across as humble and hardworking. This may have been misreads on my part, but many believe LeBron went wrong when he began taking advice from business associate Maverick Carter. Instead of finding a true professional to guide his decisions, LeBron turned to his high school friend to help manage his multi-million dollar empire. Carter’s guidance has led to such missteps as “The Decision,” the firing of agent Aaron Goodwin, and plans for a “Fat Albert” inspired cartoon called “The LeBrons.” Instead of being loyal and using adversity to become stronger, Maverick has led LeBron to the path where every decision must result in more money.
My dislike for Danger Mouse has been made pretty clear here at BDWPS, and this loathing continues with his influence on James Mercer. I may be reaching here, but when you put the timeline together, you can’t help but feel some of Mercer’s recent decisions were a result from his time spent with Danger Mouse while recording their side-project Broken Bells (did I mention that this album absolutely blows?). For one, it’s changed Mercer’s “aesthetic.” Instead of the live instrumentation found on past albums, many songs on “Port of Morrow” are set to drum loops, plus the production value has taken on a much more overblown affair. Never has Mercer’s style sounded so full, yet so emotionally empty. Mercer’s decision to move to a major label could have also come as a result of his Broken Bells experience with Capital Records. Former Shin’s drummer Sandoval speculated the same influence recently saying, “Recording time is ridiculously stressful for James, I understand how internally he started to problem solve how to make the recording process more streamlined. Working with Danger Mouse only exacerbated that fact.”
Artificial- This category isn’t so much a statement on LeBron and Mercer, rather it’s a discussion of how their new ventures both came off as lacking soul. Take LeBron for example. This playoffs many marveled at the San Antonio Spurs offense which involved every player on the team, passing until the open man was found without any egos getting in the way. Pundits describe their offense as a call back to the organic form of basketball from days of old. In contrast, the Heat’s offense, with all their stars, is a disheveled mess of “your turn, my turn” with the rest of the team often standing and watching. Obviously it worked this year (although LeBron’s ability to post up sure helped), but it certainly isn’t very fun to watch.
The first few Shins albums feature that same natural feel of the Spurs offense. Being all recorded in Mercer’s basement, the songs had a cozy, homespun feel to them. Sandoval’s drums were jaunty and loose, and Hernandez’s guitar solos were surprising and distinctive. I remember watching the band perform on Austin City Limits years ago in support of “Chutes Too Narrow” and admiring how the band all interacted; it was a group of friends making fabulous music. This stands in stark contrast to the new incarnation of The Shins that performed on SNL earlier this year, a performance that was milquetoast, insincere, and bleak. For “Port of Morrow” Mercer left the confines of his basement and moved his operation out to a fully loaded, professional studio in Los Angeles. The result is an album that resembles elevator music more than what we know as The Shins.
Tactless- Some contest that LeBron had every right to go to whatever team he wanted to (which is true, although as covered early, joining a team of stars exposes his insecurity), and I guess they are true. The problem almost everyone had with his decision was how it all went down – meeting teams for weeks and giving them false hope, slipping hints out to the media that he’d be going to a certain team and then switching teams a day later, and the big finale, “The Decision.” No other player revealed their team change so dramatically and cold-heartedly, and no player in any sport will do it again.
How did Mercer tell his band mates that he was moving in a new direction? According to Sandoval, he sent out text messages announcing a band meeting, but then he later cancelled the meeting and opted to give phone calls. In said phone calls Mercer offered up a chance to meet up for a beer, a meeting that never happened. Instead, Sandoval said of the communication, “There was nothing. There was no follow-up. Management called after that, then our lawyer called—it’s funny, the most conversation I had with anybody to that point was with our lawyer. I guess that’s probably what hurts the most. I thought I did whatever I could to not deserve that sort of ending.” Mercer may not have made his dismantling of The Shins as much of a public affair as LeBron (in fact, Mercer tried sweeping it under the rug and hoped no one would notice), but his handling of the situation has been more cowardly and passive-aggressive than anything LeBron did.
I understand that my evaluation of the latest Shins album is severely affected by how Mercer handled things, much in the same way my feelings about the Miami Heat changed when LeBron joined their ranks. But just like how on Thursday I had a moment of happiness for LeBron, I hope that my one time enjoyment of Mercer’s music will somehow return, preferably in the same rock bottom fashion.