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Editor’s Note—March 29th, 2012

I enjoy thinking about music critically, which is one of the reasons I regularly write music criticism (the others are the lucrative compensation and the opportunity to appear objective when trolling on LMFAO or whomever). Part of the appeal of criticism, I think, is the ability to divide myself into two separate entities, an evaluator of music and a consumer of it, and to let the former guide the latter through the tangled jungle of torrents and taste-making blogs. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, because it allows me to justify both my taste in music (as a consumer) and my capacity to think about it (as an evaluator).

Insofar as I’m really only one person, it’s easy to see how this process could be a mirage, a sort of masturbatory, cognitive dissonance-reduction cycle. To simultaneously claim, “I like Band X, so they’re good,” (the evaluator) and “Band X is good, so I like them” (the consumer), is question-begging on a logical level and arrogant douchery on an interpersonal level. So I try to build partitions between the evaluator and the consumer; I reserve some listening contexts (the library, with headphones in) for criticism and others (my car, or a house party) for enjoyment.

Music can play a formative role for people, in the sense that they adapt their tastes upon hearing it. Many of my contemporaries could say this about Talib Kweli or Pavement, or whoever, because these artists were their gateway into underground hip-hop or indie-rock, or whatever. Music can also play a reflective role for people, in the sense that it characterizes some part of their lives and as a result has some potent, idiosyncratic associational appeal. I wore out the Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca over the summer of 2009, and if I ever want or need to evoke or remember that time period, I can just throw on “No Intention.”

When people refer to some piece of music as their “favorite,” I like to imagine that they say it because this piece of music plays, for them, both a formative and a reflective role. The “evaluator” in them has a cognitive appreciation for the artist that makes the music formative—“Phoenix is really great, I should make a ‘Phoenix’ station on Pandora.” The “consumer” in them has a pre-cognitive appreciation for the artist that itself becomes an aspect of memory. A favorite song puts all of these dualities to rest. You enjoy it and you want to enjoy it; you appreciate listening to it and you appreciate the song itself.

When I sat down to write this, my premise was something like this: What happens when the music you grew up on grows up with you? And this is where the Shins come in.

Because—and here’s the reveal I’ve put off for 600 words—the Shins are my “favorite,” as I’ve defined the word. If all the music I’ve consciously sought out in the last six years—and that includes a whole bunch of totally unrelated genres—were arrayed in a sort of hierarchical family tree, the Shins would be the original, the ancestor, the one artist from which all the others sprout. In the sense that the Shins have been formative for me, I’m not at all alone. Hell, Zach Braff, who still had an influential career when I first listened to the Shins, once wrote a movie in which a character actually says that the Shins “will change your life.” Which, after all, is almost exactly what I’m trying to get at with the whole “formative music” idea.

But the Shins’ first three albums also carry, for me, that potent associational appeal. I was introduced to the band by a sassy brunette who wore ripped jeans and sat next to me in junior-year English class, a girl I later dated on and off for a really long time and remember fondly and still keep in close touch with. And so the Shins, aside from being my entry point into an enormously rewarding interest in contemporary music, are also emblematic of a similarly rewarding relationship, and of the part of my life over which that relationship unfolded.

The Shins—or James Mercer, anyway—recently released their fourth album, Port of Morrow. The review that ran in these pages just last week gave it four stars, but I didn’t write it.

I didn’t write it because, in a weird way, I couldn’t. I don’t mean that I wouldn’t have been objective about it—I wouldn’t have, but I’ve written plenty of reviews of acts I’m partial to and not thought twice about it. But what their music can do for me is fixed, what it means to me is frozen. It is already both formative and reflective. And it turns out that nothing happens when the music you grow up with grows up with you—there are no more undiscovered ways to interact with it, no frontiers it can lead you to.

“Legacy” is an important notion in an era in which everything is recorded and remembered, and we often look at an artist’s whole body of work when deciding their legacy. Port of Morrow is a great album, and I’m glad that it is. But it won’t figure in my estimation of Mercer and the Shins’ legacy—whatever it is, it’s all it ever will or could be.

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