The Shins' "Nothing At All" and Nihilism

We've long jokingly refereed to this as the nihilist song. I've got this ideal inside of me, but it's nothing at all. It's almost too funny, too straightforward, an upbeat song saying Hey Guys! There's Nothing At All! I've argued with friends about it, them saying that its about personal dissatisfaction and disenfranchisement. But somehow in the context of the shin's work (first three albums, at least) it looked to me as James slapping a nice melody to conceal that he really truly believed what he was saying. And in the five years of me thinking they'd never release a thing again, that they'd break up (they kinda did), it was the perfect post script to their career. The dropped last song on their last album, now only included as a bonus, as if to say "in case you didn't get it in the coded verse of the rest of our career, here it is for you, spelt out". "You want to put your trust in some solid thing? Yeah, it's a drug to us all". The record store clerk handed me a 7" record, for free, with it on the A and split needles alt take on the B, and as far as I can tell this particular combination isn't supposed to exist, I don't know why I have it.

Of course, this is not the first time the Shins have endorsed nihilism, or perhaps it's a brand of existentialism. The belief that there is no governing force to the universe, no spiritual ties that bind, and no meaning to life. That there is no fate, no god, no deeper reason to live, and perhaps even no love or happiness. In fact, the first seeds of this emptiness manifested on the opposite end of their discography, the first song on their first album. Caring is Creepy deals heavily in existential angst, images of walking naked in snow and feeling nothing, and hiding the fact you're dead again. Even the title shows this depressed detachment, as if to say "I don't care. Caring is creepy."

This trend is active throughout Oh Inverted World, the Shins' most cryptic album, notably on Know Your Onion's tale of teenage misanthropy. "When every other part of life seemed locked behind shutters, we knew the worthless dregs we've always been". However, it took until the straightforward, poppy Chutes Too Narrow came out for it to really take off. It's been said that the album is made up one third of love songs, one third of break up songs, and one third of despaired philosophy. Saint Simon and Fighting in the Sack even seem to specifically deal with the meaninglessness of life and the falseness of religion. Fighting's second verse states "Most ideals turn to dust, there are few in which we all can trust. Haven't you noticed I've been shedding all of mine?" He suggests that the whole idea of meaning is just because we humans know that our fate is to die and vanish, and we intentionally believe something else so we won't have to deal with that. "The cruel uneventful state of apathy releases me. I value them but I won't cry every time one's wiped out".

However, there are love songs, which would perhaps suggest that he shifts more towards existentialism that nihilism (in a nutshell, that he believes the universe gives us no meaning, but we can give ourselves some). Though there is Gone For Good, about breaking off an engagement after finding "a fatal flaw in the logic of love", there is the incredible Those To Come to counter it. In it our man wakes up to a beautiful girl making tea in her underwear and through her sees the entire cycle of life in the universe, and seems ok with it. There are few things I've ever been able to identify with as much as this song. I am in love with this girl I've never met through James Mercer's eyes. He is amazed to see her "still prone to care", a dramatic contrast to the original title of Gone For Good: A Call To Apathy.

Snapped back from the relatively clear lyrics on Chutes, the third album drowns itself in symbolism and references, a dense thick shell to crack, and certainly the hardest to tell exactly what James is trying to say. So I can only tell you what I've got. Certainly Australia deals with a whole score of themes of meaninglessness, from it's opening lines questioning the depth of human's purpose on earth to the "selfless fool who'd hoped he'd save us all" holding you down. He talks about the dodo's and the android's conundrum, perhaps meaning the emptiness of wings without flight or living without true life. He wants to cry, but nothing happens anytime he tries. Phantom Limb begs us to "follow the lines and wonder why there's no connection".

Turn On Me deals out one of the most potent anti-love lines, and certainly the one that has had the most violent repercussions throughout my life, from the fifteen year-old who first heard it down to now. "Do affections fade away? Or do adults just learn to play the most ridiculous repulsing games?" There's a handful of other lyrics sprinkled throughout the album that could be on the same strand, but they could also mean dozens of other things so I try not to speculate more than I have already.

Of course this all leads up to A Comet Appears, where, far from the concluding song on their previous album, he looks into his heart and sees a numbness growing. "Every post you can hitch your faith on is a pie in the sky, chock full of lies, a tool we devise to make sinking stones fly."

And if you have the bonus track you're then suddenly hit with "I've got this ideal inside of me that we're nothing at all." "I'm just a shell as empty as can be. Yeah, I've got nothing at all." and the ending chant, upbeat, of

"There's noting at all

there's nothing at all

there's nothing at all

there's nothing at all"


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