Gold teeth and a curse for this town
were all in my mouth
From comments Shins' songwriter James Mercer has made, it's pretty clear that the town this lyric refers to is Albuquerque, New Mexico.
In 2000, when this song was written, about 448,607 people lived in Albuquerque. It's also home to the University of New Mexico, where Mercer studied chemistry for a few semesters before dropping out to work on his music. It seems like a college town with a decent population would be a great place for rising indie groups, right?
Well, according to Mercer, it was common to "have a situation where [Shins bass and guitar player Dave Hernandez's former band] Scared of Chaka would go to New York and play in front of 500 people and they'd play in Albuquerque and 150 people would come out. It was kind of like you could only make money elsewhere. There wasn't a huge audience. There were really great bands, but there wasn't so much this huge, vibrant scene." (Source)
Perhaps this lukewarm reaction to local music was some of the inspiration for the "curse" mentioned in the lyrics.
And if you'd took to me like
a gull takes to the wind
It seems like the relationship that the speaker is talking about simply didn't come naturally.
When you see a gull at the beach hanging in the air without flapping its wings, aren't you a little jealous? Doesn't it look pretty fun, and utterly effortless? (What it's really doing is riding on thermal currents—thermals happen when the ground is heated by the sun and the hot air rises. But it looks simple.)
Apparently the relationship the speaker is talking about in the song didn't happen that easily, but the speaker wishes it had.
The dirt in your fries
Yes, folks, this song was used in—you're reading this right—a fast-food commercial.
In 2002, fast-food giant McDonald's used "New Slang" in one of their commercials. It's pretty amusing, isn't it, that in a world with millions of songs that don't mention dirty fries, the company chose this one?
When asked about it in an interview with Pitchfork, Mercer explained, "You know, it's funny, that whole thing was just an ad agency that McDonald's hired to do a 'hip commercial,' or whatever. So the kid who offered the whole thing up to us was a Shins fan. So I think there was a little bit of... Yeah. He knew. [Laughs]" (Source)
Though not every pairing is as amusing as the McDonald's with "New Slang" combo (chuckle), indie music has become increasingly popular in the advertising world. Modest Mouse's "Gravity Rides Everything" was in a minivan commercial, the Unicorns provide the soundtrack for a Crayola ad, and Joanna Newsom's lilting harp is in a Victoria's Secret promotion. This is an interesting trend, because, as NPR puts it, "Indie rock fans expect their favorite bands to suffer for the art. That means accepting large sums of money for commercial deals is out." (Source)
However, in an age when people illegally download a lot of music for free, bands can't always make ends meet by selling mp3s for 99 cents. How are they supposed to fund tours and recording albums? It's an interesting battle that indie bands and fans will be fighting for a while to come.
I'm lookin' in on the good life I might be
doomed never to find
Over the centuries, people have done a lot of wishing that they had someone else's life.
Did you see that Batman movie The Dark Knight? Well, you know how Bruce Wayne has to watch the girl he loves be in a happy relationship with another man because he just can't stop fighting crime and live a normal life? The speaker in "New Slang" is expressing a similar feeling here.
If you've ever wanted something very badly, but just knew you couldn't have it, you're not just in the company of film/comic book characters, but of some of the most memorable personas in the literary world. Just one example is Tess of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, who sees love as the way out of her rather sad late-1800s English peasant life.
However, despite being the object of desire of not just one, but two well-to-do gentlemen, it doesn't quite happen for her. If there was ever a girl "doomed never to find" what she desires, it's Tess.