The Half Light: “New Slang” Changed My Life

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I’m finally listening to “Port of Morrow,” the Shins album that came out last week, and though it’s too early to form an impression worth putting down in words, the mere act of listening to a new Shins release triggered a memory of early 2004, when I first discovered the song “New Slang.” I’ve written in this space before about how music triggers memory, but today I want to take it a step further—in some cases, music is the only way to really remember, in the most vivid emotional colors, how I actually felt at a given point in the past.

In 2004, I had just come back from a semester abroad in Ireland—easily the best few months of my college experience—to discover that I wasn’t overwhelmed with friends at my real college. The social calendar, which had been bursting full in Europe, suddenly had month-long gaps. Because I hadn’t been around for the first semester and all my other study-abroad friends had paired off, I had to find a random roommate. He ended up being a very nice, very studious person, and the main interaction the two of us had over the next few months was when I came home drunk, shattered his glasses when I stepped on them, and had to pay him $250 for a new pair. That amount of money is not a pittance even now, but back then it was essentially a fortune. (I’m also remembering one of the embarrassingly rare times when a girl came home with me, and him coughing as loud as possible as whatever happened on the other side of the room happened at whatever volume, and me knowing he was coughing to send a message, and just completely not caring. I owe him a million karmic dollars. And I can’t help but wonder—why am I writing a column that’s going to help me remember what it felt like to be in college?)

This was also the point, deep into my junior year, when the anxiety of a pending career began creeping into my arsenal of unhelpful thoughts. I was an English major, which was already beginning to feel hugely useless, and my focus was in creative writing, which was even worse. It would be a few more years and about 500 miles north, in Brooklyn, before the fear of being miserable and poor for the rest of my life truly struck its fangs into my brain, but in terms of worrying, I’ve always been ahead of my time, and the first signals were flitting in over the air waves. I was well ahead of my peers in picturing a miserable future in some office, but far behind them in taking steps to prevent it.

But let me return to “New Slang.” When I said I discovered it in 2004, the cynics out there surely rolled their eyes, sighed, and said the words Garden State. Well guess what, amigos? That particular film came out in July of 2004, and this was in January. Yes, I was late to the Shins game, but not that late. After a music-free few months in Ireland, I was downloading anything I could get my hands on, guided by the advice of a few trusted cyber-friends on a music message board, and The Shins’ Chutes Too Narrow (their second album, which did not include “New Slang”) was among that batch.

Let me take this moment to say something important: damn you, Garden State. Any time I mentioned The Shins for the next five years, some clever son of a bitch would inevitably go, “DID IT CHANGE YOUR LIFE?!?!” Which was annoying because, though it clearly did not change my life in any direct fashion—I continued on the careening path to nothing for several years, unaffected by James Mercer’s wonderful song—listening to it did provide me with roughly the same epiphanic experience that Zach Braff and Natalie Portman shared in that waiting room when she placed the headphones over his head. And as his eyes widened, Braff cheated me out of my own moment. He co-opted the beauty, the sheer stunning rush of light and melancholy, into whatever Garden State was. It felt like having the funniest moments of my life re-written into a terrible sitcom starring Jim Belushi. Hey, come on, it wasn’t like that! We didn’t turn to the camera to ham it up! There was no laugh track!

But for whatever reason, the Garden State mockery seemed to stop sometime around 2009. Maybe five years is the half-life of a poisonous film’s influence, or maybe I’m just too far out of the scene to realize it’s still ongoing. Regardless, listening to “Port of Call,” I find that I’m able to return to those feelings without Braff’s grinning face shading the journey.

And what I remember is this: first, in my dorm room, with a clouded view out a dirty window, Chutes Too Narrow came first. The song that stuck out at first, and which I played on repeat, was “So Says I.” It reminded me of a Beatles song, but way more sincere and hard-charging, sung by a guy who was very intently trying to get an anti-establishment message across. John Lennon would never be pigeonholed like that, at least in his early days, before the “Imagine” era, but James Mercer was unapologetic. He swathed the theme in metaphors and clever description, but the sentiment was as naked as the roman candle passage in Kerouac’s “On the Road.” And I was confronted, of course, by the melodic skill that has elevated him to the top of the indie music world, without which nothing in music is anything for very long.

So I got the rest of the album, and then I was told by the message-board people that I really, really needed to find Oh, Inverted World, the first album. My online scouring, still in its developmental stage, came up empty, and so I took a trip to Southpoint Mall in Durham. It was and remains a hugely depressing place, especially on that rainy day, but I found what I was seeking in a music store whose name I can’t remember. I had nowhere to be and nothing to do, so I ran through the rain back to my car and put it in the CD player. And as I sat there in the midday dark, my freshly 21-year-old mind was blown.

When I got back to campus, I ripped the songs from the cd and put them on my iPod mini. Did the rain clear up that day, or was it the next when the sun finally came out? I can’t remember, but I know I walked to the Sarah P. Duke Gardens in the late afternoon, a few hours before dusk, armed with the music and the intent to sink deep and listen. I navigated the stone paths, the terrace gardens, the mostly bare flower beds, the hill where in two months the girls would sunbathe in their bikinis and the guys would throw a Frisbee on the lawn at the bottom, and came to the large pond which I just now learned is called the Teien-Oike Garden Pond. The usual array of ducks and geese floated around the shore, some of them venturing on land as far as the trees. A walking trail weaved around the pond, and on the west campus side, I found my favorite bench. It faced the pond and was half-hidden behind a stand of trees—were they oak or maple?—giving it a secluded vibe that made me feel protected from other eyes.

So I sat down, and listened to the entire album. It’s still a gorgeous piece of work today, but back then the feeling was more acute. In fact, everything felt more acute—love, anger, hate, and pride. Sometimes, I can’t believe I made it through those years, and though I have no desire to return, here on the cusp of 30, there is an allure in the extreme shoots and turns. Back then, it was possible to be rocked to the core.

When “The Past and the Pending” came to its slow end (“lose yourself in lines dissecting”), the setting sun made long shadows of the trees, and they stretched out over the still surface of the pond. This was the artist I’d waited for, the person who understood my mental state and had the ability to make something beautiful of it. Which, though I may not have deserved it, made me feel like something more special, or at least a person who held the potential for beauty. As I listened to “New Slang” on repeat, and the sky grew darker and the January dusk become colder, the feeling intensified. This wasn’t the first time that great art had planted the idea that something better was inside, waiting for me to make a difficult choice. But this may have been the time I needed it most. When I finally got up and started the long uphill walk back to my dorm, my eyes ached from the tears that had fallen over the past hour.

It took me years to finally confront that choice. But when the moment arrived, who’s to say that the hope James Mercer planted, along with the others like him who made their benevolent invasions into my private world as I prepared to grow, weren’t there to inspire some unknown strength, or remind me of a vague promise? These are fleeting thoughts I’ve always had trouble trying to quantify, but they helped me maintain resilience when I never felt like I had it in me. The ideas are pencil sketches, broad and half-formed, and it’s better for me if I quit before I begin to stutter. Still, I know it intuitively—somehow, “New Slang” changed my life.