Never in my life have I finished an album and thought ’empathetic’ was the best word to describe it, but that was precisely the term that occurred to me upon finishing shy kids’ second album, in a state. Just a few hours later I listened to it again, and the word became ‘simple’, which somehow tapped out for ‘ambitious’ on the next spin. Listen after listen, in a state became something new to me, without ever contradicting what it had been before. Having given it quite a few go-arounds now, I can confidently say the word that describes it best is ‘masterpiece’, which isn’t a word I throw around lightly.
On paper, in a state gives every impression of being rather slight; it runs just twenty-three minutes over nine tracks (only four of which pass the three minute mark), and songs heard in isolation sound like high-quality indie pop – not groundbreaking, but pretty darn good. And who knows, if one were to listen to the album out of order, that might be the takeaway: pretty darn good indie pop, like all of the other pretty darn good indie pop out there. What separates in a state, what makes the whole even greater than the sum of its parts (and those parts are deceptively brilliant), is that it’s all in the service of a nuanced, astoundingly well-structure piece of sonic storytelling.
Once again, the concept on paper fails to convey the genius of its execution. in a state is about a Canadian coming to America and trying to make it in various different locales, singing songs exploring the good and bad each respective clime has to offer. That’s not exactly the most original idea, and it’s certainly not one that has any right being a sweeping, even dizzying emotional journey. But it is! There are a few reasons for this (on top of the fact that the music is phenomenal, by turns infectious and moving), and they all boil down to the fact that shy kids have storytellers in their midst. They demonstrated this with their 2013 mini-hit Noah, a short film whose creative team constitutes three fourths of shy kids. Noah is a short film that takes place entirely on a computer screen, and derives its punch from knowing when to tell the story via specific details, and when to invite audience identification by trading in broader generalities.
It’s that same discretion that makes in a state such a triumph. The album is unmistakably a personal account of shy kids’ own journey into and around the United States – but rather than attempting to tell the listener how they, the musicians, felt on their journeys, and hoping the listener chooses to engage with that emotion, they turn each geographical stop into an archetypal experience with which anybody and everybody can relate. ‘You know that,’ offers a common refrain in “I was in New York”, ‘or you might not’. shy kids may have filmmaking bona fides behind them, but they understand that the way to tell a story via music isn’t to try to make a movie soundtrack, leavened with little skits or, heaven forfend, narrators to explain what’s happening. Instead, they utilize the impressionistic generalities that are unique to music, creating an evocative sonic scaffolding and letting the listener fill in the bricks. It’s a gentle invitation to identification, rather than a spoon-feeding imposition, that drives this album.
Chances are slim that you have tried living in New York City, then Los Angeles, then the agricultural center of the US. It’s much more likely, though, that you’ve had to disrupt your routine and found the experience disorienting (“ordinary hotel”), done something or gone somewhere that fails to live up to its own hype (“I was in New York”), been surrounded by apparently happy people and failed to access whatever joy they’re performing (“I was in LA”), internalized your ennui as a referendum on yourself as a person (“i feel like a failure”), come to accept that not enjoying what others do can’t logically sustain value judgments, as it implies the inverse (“the middle”), and yet, even from this place of self-realization, been dissatisfied enough to imagine happiness as even more attainable in more far-flung locales (“if I was in Hawaii…”).
This, to me, is the mastery of in a state: the way shy kids distill each part of the country visited into a totemic essence of the broader human experience evoked by each respective city (as it happens I have lived in LA, NYC and in rural PA, I can tell you they’re right on the money in each case). This isn’t just a story of geographical trek; to me it’s an exploration of what it means to grow up in a world where we’re constantly seduced by the idea that there are better things out there, that a happy life is attainable if only you can go somewhere else. It’s no accident that the album opens with the sound of someone watching TV, aimlessly clicking through channels, and ends with a hypothetical journey to Hawaii, and then the moon. It makes for a complex conclusion, one that acknowledges the acceptance of self and situation that makes for a happy life, and the ambition that can broaden the mind even as it breeds discontent, are equally necessary and inseparable. That’s my read, anyway. ‘You know that, or you might not.’
There’s a lot to discover and dig into here, multi-tiered wordplay and understated allusions (my favorite example – listen to “I was in LA” and the way the word ‘shot’ is used in the bridge. I counted three meanings to the word, with the above-posted visual album providing a fourth). Repeat listens, it turns out, prove illuminating to everybody: in an interview with The Young Folks, shy kids’ own Patrick Cederberg and Matthew Hornick cop to not recognizing a particular pun that similarly eluded me. What’s remarkable about this is that Cederberg’s phrasing implies that he himself wrote the line, yet failed to see the double meaning at first. Whether or not that’s the case, it’s another example of the album’s eagerness to invite listener identification. Even the artists themselves are happy to be surprised by their work; there’s clearly intention behind every choice they’ve made, but there’s also the humility to recognize that art is often most powerful not for what the artist can dictate to the listener, but what the listener can contribute to the art.
It’s this ethos that makes in a state so miraculous to me: it not only tolerates but embraces every experience under the sun. It could easily have become a screed against cities and the people who love them, or mocked the folks who go to rodeos for fun. Instead shy kids have crafted an encomium to what makes horse races, an affirmation of the myriad virtues to be found in every way of life that refuses to diminish those with which one doesn’t connect. If anything, in a state is so empathetic and understanding that it loses me from time to time (alas, I can’t be as tolerant of gun nuts as “the middle” is), but it’s refreshing to finally feel like an album is eclipsing me through positivity and inclusion rather than snark and dismissal.
In an era when artists are gaming streaming algorithms with longer albums, or splitting them in half like the last film in a YA franchise, shy kids have demonstrated that there is no correlation between length and quality. in a state has a thoughtful, nuanced tale to tell via gorgeous music, but carries itself as though it only wants to spin its yarn, make you bob your head, and let you get on with your day. It’ll only be a matter of time, though, before you find yourself listening to in a state again. And again. And again. That’s the power of a true masterpiece: it leaves one wanting more, and delivers exactly that with each subsequent listen.
Don’t miss out on this album.
Notable Tracks: “I was in New York”; “I feel like a failure”; “the middle”
FFO: Vulfpeck, Shawn Lee, Blood, Sweat and Tears