Song 178: The Shins, “Saint Simon” (2003)

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I always forget how much I love this song. When listening to the Shins’ second record Chutes Too Narrow, I always head straight for “Gone For Good,” a pretty little country song about self-destruction. But “Saint Simon,” oblique but catchy as they come, is the great track on the album.

I’m not very confident in my ability to parse lyrics, so what a relief it was to realize that “Saint Simon” is about the difficulty of parsing things. Despite all the ways we have to research, deconstruct and explain information, James Mercer is “so vexed to find evidently there’s just so much that hides.” There’s not much we can do, he says, so we might as well “batten down to fare the wind” and “step into the night.”

It’s at this point in the song that I always marvel at the song’s construction: just as Mercer finds his moment of inner peace, the song shifts from minor to major, but it happens both subtly and jarringly, if that’s possible. The notes he sings when singing “la da dum dum” are E, D, C and B, sung over an E-major chord. This combination makes our ears assume that we’re headed back to the A-minor that begins all the verses–E is the fifth of A, and generally, fifths resolve most readily to the root. In other words, the chord of E-major, along with those notes (which are compatible with E-major) make us think we’re in for more A-minor. But the skies brighten unexpectedly, and we land softly in a C-major chord. Those notes he’s repeating also work nicely with C-major and the subsequent G chord, but we never thought we’d get there. It’s a sneaky transition, similar to the one Paul Simon slipped by us in “Still Crazy After All These Years” (in that instance, a key change that also used the fifth).

Mercer’s moment of clarity is such a relief after hanging around in uncertainty; likewise, after being stuck in A-minor for a while, C-major is a welcome relief. It’s the aural equivalent of mercy’s blue eyes, and it’s just one reason why James Mercer is brilliant.

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