As an interviewer from Pitchfork put it, James Mercer "started the Shins as a way of exploring three-minute pop songs with conventional chord structures" (source). In "New Slang," that method of songwriting is very apparent. The song consists of some of the first chords any guitar player learns: A minor (referred to as Am from here on), C major, F major, and G major. But just because the chords are simple doesn't make the music uninteresting.
Take how the first verse, which refers more directly to regret and sadness, features the Am chord along with the other three, while the first two choruses that talk about how things could have been beautiful are made up of only G, C, and F. Each of the three chords in the chorus are major chords.
What does that mean, exactly? Well, to be general about it, minor chords sound sad and major chords sound happy. It's interesting that the chords used seem to match the tone of what is being sung over them. Also, when the final chorus comes around and Mercer talks about a "good life [he] might be/doomed never to find," the "happy" chords he is playing can be seen to either reflect a sense of hope, or create irony.
For many listeners, "New Slang" is the Shins song. If you've only heard one of their songs, this is probably it; NPR called it "the Shins's masterpiece" (source). The song is not just a one-off success, though: it's highly typical of the Shins' early recording style and songwriting.
Most of Oh, Inverted World makes use of two specific techniques: adding reverb, and doubling the vocals. Songs like "New Slang" sound kind of echo-y, as though they were recorded a really long time ago. That's the reverb, which James Mercer added in himself when he recorded the album. (Reverb is short for "reverberation," like what you get when you talk down a long, empty hallway.) Because modern recording equipment has made it possible to get extremely crisp sound, the extra echo sounds typical of far older albums.
Mercer also doubles his voice on almost every song, because, as he explains, "I was in a little studio apartment so I always felt self-conscious about the singing because I knew my neighbors could hear" (source). Since he wanted to sing quietly, he simply recorded the vocal tracks twice to give his voice extra power in the mix.
In terms of style, the band's repertoire is full of simple songs that pack a powerful punch. They aren't simple because the band lacks musical skill, but because James Mercer created the band specifically to make short pop songs, and pop is often made up of very basic musical elements. What makes "New Slang" so definitive of the early Shins sound is that it is the essential simple pop song. It has a straightforward verse to chorus progression, and it uses only vocals, guitar, and bass with extremely basic percussion. In fact, it seems to be exactly the type of song Mercer wanted to create when he started the band.
"New Slang" is also the first single that the Shins released that saw wide distribution, because it was the first one released by the band's label, Sub Pop. Pretty much every other Shins song, whether rightly or wrongly, has to live up to this one.
Okay, we'll be the first to admit that this song isn't exactly a narrative. But by examining the symbolism, you can see that it does tell about a logical series of emotions.
Gold teeth and a curse for this town
Were all in my mouth
Only, I don't know how
They got out, dear
In these opening lines, we have a speaker who reluctantly admits to disliking the place where he lives. He's so reluctant to admit it that in the very next verse he asks the impossible. He also gives the reasoning behind his request:
Turn me back into the pet
I was when we met
I was happier then with no mindset
Despite being discontent with his current life, the speaker seems frightened by the prospect of having to start a new one. Everything would be a lot easier if he could go back to being happy with the way things were before. Maybe you've experienced being in a once-good relationship that got worse over time, but it just seemed simpler to stay in it than to go through all the trouble of breaking up and finding someone new. Besides, maybe things would go back to how they were before, right?
That's what the speaker is feeling here, except it's not just for a lover, but also for a town. Just like many people in crumbling relationships, though, the speaker admits that he has a changed opinion about his future: before, he had "no mindset." This probably means that he's got new ambitions and goals, and he has to get away from this town and this relationship to pursue them.
This brings us to the chorus:
And if you'd took to me like
A gull takes to the wind
Well, I'd-a jumped from my tree
And I'd-a danced like the king of the eyesores
And the rest of our lives would-a fared well
Here the speaker is admitting that the relationships he has with his town and his "dear" have had issues from the beginning. Because they weren't natural like a "gull taking to the wind," they started out imperfectly.
The speaker "jumping from [his] tree" may refer to the idiom to "look down on" someone or something. The speaker might be acknowledging that he has certain pretensions he wishes his relationship had helped him get over. If this had happened, he could have come to the ground and danced "like the king of the eyesores" because he wouldn't have felt stupid and self-conscious about it. Unfortunately, none of this happened, and lives that may have "fared well" aren't going to end as well as the speaker wishes they could.
After the first chorus ends, the speaker begins referring to a "you" that we can reasonably assume to be the significant other mentioned in the first verse. He says the following to her:
New slang when you notice the stripes,
the dirt in your fries.
Hope it's right when you die,
old and bony.
With "stripes" and "dirt in your fries," the speaker is referring to all the things in the world that aren't immediately apparent, but bother you once you notice them. He is telling his lover that he hopes that she doesn't have to see all the problems with their town and lives that he does. So, even though mentioning someone dying may seem kind of harsh, the speaker is really saying that he hopes the girl doesn't get tired and fed up with her life until it doesn't really matter anymore. It's kind of a sweet sentiment. However, you could also argue that him wanting to break up with someone but not wanting her to realize why it needs to happen is a little cruel.
There's also the phrase "new slang," which is interesting for more reasons than just that it's the song's title. Slang is a word or phrase that isn't official in a language, often because it's not polite, but sometimes just because it's been invented to better describe something within a group or community.
With that in mind, "slang" seems to link closely with the "curse" Mercer talks about in the first verse of this song—think of "curse words." Because the speaker hopes that his lover doesn't see bad things in life until her life is almost over, maybe he also hopes she doesn't have to create "new slang" as he created a new "curse" when he admitted his unhappiness. What do you think "new slang" means?
The next lyrics open with an image of a new beginning ("Dawn breaks…"), but also with an image of destruction ("…like a bull through the hall"). This may symbolize the chaotic entry into a new phase of life that the speaker is experiencing. In this verse, the speaker also mentions being lonely. These uneasy feelings cause him to make a call he regrets. The regret probably comes from his not wanting to put his issues on anyone else, not wanting them to have to deal with the dirt he's found in his fries.
After another chorus, the song comes to the part which is probably most difficult to make sense of:
Godspeed all the bakers at dawn,
may they all cut their thumbs
and bleed into their buns 'til they melt away.
We think we have a pretty reasonable idea though, so follow us on this one. When a baker makes buns, he is creating something of his very own. This could be a metaphor for how a person creates his or her life. The speaker may be feeling angry that he's having to deal with all of his doubt and fear as his current life crumbles.
What helps when we feel bad about something? Having something or someone to relate to...maybe like some people feel about "New Slang." The speaker in this song hopes that these bakers hurt themselves while making their fresh buns and then have to watch their creations disappear because of an accident they caused. That way he's not the only one who has to deal with a lot of time and effort going to waste.
The final chorus changes things up a bit, but stays within the same lines. The speaker worries that he can't start his new life because he's "too dumb to refine." A worry that's pretty expected given his other emotions.
It's pretty amazing how much symbolism Mercer packed into this four-minute song. When first hearing it, the images might seem like disconnected, pretty things put to a catchy tune. As with all good pieces of writing, however, almost nothing is placed in it without purpose.