What makes this song so instantly familiar and likable? It may be that "New Slang" is, as NPR put it, "ridiculously melodic and structurally flawless" (source). Or perhaps the reason lies in how the lyrics seem to touch on two themes many people relate to: boredom and souring relationships. It could even be—not to get too technical on you—how the chord structure is similar to many beloved pop songs of the past and present. Heck, it even shares some likeness with the chords in Prince's "When Doves Cry."
Basically, there are a ton of reasons that people enjoy this song, as well as a ton of interesting things to learn about it. We'll start with an astrology lesson.
James Mercer, the songwriting force behind the Shins, once said that "'New Slang' is about that Saturn Returns part of my life" (source). What does he mean? As you probably know, astrology is the study of how planets and such up in space affect our day-to-day lives as well as long-term destiny. Whether you believe in this stuff or not, you've probably checked your horoscope in the paper every now and then for a laugh.
Well, when you're about 29, the planet Saturn is back in roughly the same place as when you were born. This is important, because, as the astrological examiners the Saturn Sisters say, "If everything feels like chaos, if your relationships are breaking down and you're questioning your career, your friendships, your sanity, and your very life, it is likely that it's just the ripples of your Saturn Return descending." (Source)
In that same interview, Mercer explained his comment further, saying, "It's about that time of my life, about getting out of Albuquerque," where he'd lived for eleven years, "and leaving everything behind… I was in this place that I felt depressed about. I felt like I couldn't relate to the people I had been hanging out with. I had become a hermit making a record and recording and lost interest in the bingeing and partying… I would indulge in things but it wouldn't be much fun." (Source)
What we get from these very personal words is that the broad meaning of "New Slang" can be taken from the songwriter's own life: it's about wanting to move on. Strangely enough, whether because of the will of the cosmos or plain old talent and elbow grease, this song about wanting something more from life played an enormous part in making the Shins popular enough to get out of the Southwest and on to a much more successful phase of their career.
That more successful phase began soon after the writing of "New Slang," when the Shins went on a national tour with the band Modest Mouse. A representative of Sub Pop showed up at one of the shows; that label caters mostly to indie bands, though it was also the home to Bleach-era Nirvana. The Sub Pop representative asked the Shins to contribute a song to Sub Pop's Single of the Month Club. The band submitted "New Slang," which led to a contract with the label and then to their first album, Oh, Inverted World.
The album was well-received: it ended up on many critics' best-of lists for the year, and brought the Shins a lot of notice in the indie-music community. Even then, though, the Shins really hadn't broken through to a larger crowd. What helped them do that was the movie Garden State.
In the film, Natalie Portman plays a character who introduces a new acquaintance to "New Slang." She gives it high praise, saying, "You gotta hear this one song, it'll change your life, I swear." Lucky for the Shins, the audience seemed to agree. Mercer told Incendiary that this one movie had a huge effect on his band's career, saying, "We had a lot of licensing offers and we also started selling a lot more records, as well as sold out shows, especially colleges. It was big. We were exposed to a whole new audience." (Source)
With that, the Shins had a pretty straight path to widespread recognition and success. The song's lyrics, though, don't seem to have any similarly simple narrative.
In fact, you may even want to think of this song as impressionistic. You've heard of Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh? They and other 19th-century painters decided to try capturing the feeling of the world around them, instead of trying to make their paintings look realistic. Impressionism also gained ground in literary culture, where some writers looked at traditional storytelling and said, forget it. Instead of worrying about creating a world and storyline that seemed realistic, they presented a series of images or thoughts, often in rapid succession, and focused on making their readers feel a particular emotion.
Much like a lot of impressionist work, Mercer's lyrics create meaning out of a series of images, from gold teeth, to kings of eyesores, to bleeding bakers. One person responding to "New Slang" in a comment section on a lyric site wrote, "What I love about this song is that even though I can sense a general theme, every time I listen to it I feel a different way. Every time the lines I identify most with change and so does their meaning but there is always something there to identify with."
This state of mind is a good way to take in a song that's constructed like "New Slang," but we understand that just telling you, "Open your mind, Shmooper" isn't going to cut it.
Instead, we'll elaborate.
A listener could take this song in a whole bunch of ways, but when it comes to Mercer's intentions, there are two pretty distinct camps in the interpretation of this song. One side says that it is obviously about a guy who is sad about a relationship with a girl. The other says it's about boredom in a hometown and wanting to escape. Ever the ambassadors of good will, we here at Shmoop suggest that the two ideas not only both seem to be right, but that the song is more interesting because of it.
Let's start with the first lyrics in the song:
Gold teeth and a curse for this town
were all in my mouth
Only I don't know how
they got out, dear.
Mercer has said of these lyrics that "I guess that's like gold teeth being this discovery that I could write songs and that this was my chance, in this talent that I discovered" (source).
So, let's pair that comment with what we know about Mercer's growing distaste for Albuquerque at the time the song was written. These two things were building up side-by-side in the speaker and have spilled out of him at the same time. It seems pretty reasonable now to believe the image in these first lines to mean that the songwriter is surprised by (1) his ability to write songs people like and (2) that this ability may give him the chance to escape a place he has grown tired of. We also get introduced to the "dear." This song now has a person it is being addressed to, presumably a lover of some sort.
The second verse of the song has the speaker plead, "Turn me back into the pet / I was when we met." This is where it might be easiest to assume that the "dear" is a person, but there's nothing stopping you from also taking it as being figuratively addressed to the "town." Either way, what we do know is that the speaker wants to go back to a time when he had the traits of a garden-variety golden retriever: unconditionally loving, content with being taken care of by others, curious about its surroundings but ultimately happy just to have a home.
This wish for going back to the past leads us into the chorus. There, the speaker allows himself to imagine what life would-a been like if only the dear (or possibly the town), had taken to him as naturally as a "gull takes to the wind." In an interview with the A.V. Club from around the time that the Shins' second album came out, Mercer describes his situation, saying, "I was just having issues with this girl, and the thing that I really wanted from her was this pure, sort of regular love." (Source)
Maybe the speaker of "New Slang" is wishing for a similar love in the chorus, and believes that if the love were only honest enough, his life would have the ease and grace of a seabird gliding on coastal air currents.
The first two verses and the chorus show a person who is excited about the prospect of starting a new life, but who's also sad that he can't get back to the time when he was happy with what he had. The speaker's sadness is a mixture of disliking a place he used to enjoy and no longer being happy with someone whom he once loved easily. The speaker never really resolves this battle between optimism and nostalgia, and the song ends with the phrase "the rest of our lives would-a fared well." The one word "would" shows that the speaker is still uncertain about the future – he has no idea if anything better than what he had is really going to come his way.
As we know, better things did come for Mercer and the Shins. But although their third album reached the #2 spot on the Billboard charts, "New Slang" is the song that really helped make the Shins a success. It's been described by Pitchfork as a "bedroom-pop gem that shuffled its way onto a stage larger than anyone imagined possible" (source) and is on Rolling Stone's list of 100 best songs of the 2000s.
"New Slang," a simple, acoustic guitar-based ditty about wanting something more out of life, resonated with thousands of listeners and gave its creators the chance to explore some of what they were looking for.