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“Phantom Limb” by the Shins: What I Aa listening To Right This Minute by Alyson Camus

Sometimes, you really need some help to understand lyrics. Some songwriters write great songs, but frankly without a little research and a few words from the creator, I would never figure out what’s going on.

I love the Shins, as many people do, actually way too many now, I would really prefer not to wait endless hours when they give a free show at Amoeba Records; last time the scene was insanely surreal. Their last album ‘Wincing the night away’ (2007) is full of little gems, among them ‘Phantom Limb’ which was released as a single. The song has such a catchy tune, and even if I have a friend who told me he had a problem with the ooooh waooo of the chorus, I still think it is a great Shins song.

Bur there is a wide gap between The Shins’ music, which is very accessible, and their lyrics which are usually extremely cryptic. How can anyone make sense of lyrics like those of ‘Phantom Limb’ just after a few listenings?

These kinds of lyrics require work and a revelation from James Mercer himself sure helps. He said in many interviews it was about a certain lesbian relationship: “It’s about these two girls who fall in love with each other. They’re in this shitty town, they’re alone and they find each other and feel connected. They have this thing and it frees them from everything around them. It’s so positive, because it’s about seeing a future.”

So these are the young ‘white girls’ in ‘winter coats’ he is talking about at the beginning of the song! And the rest of the lyrics make sense with this useful hint. They are alienated in their little town and that’s why they are ‘phantoms,’ ‘flies’ and ‘zombies.’ They feel apart, isolated, they ‘skirt the hallway sides,’ find ‘no connection,’ they are complete outcasts, sacrificed ‘lambs’ on a ‘foreign land,’… it all makes sense.

But what to do with the title? A phantom limb is a medical term designing a sensation (usually a painful one) people get when a leg or an arm has been amputated, it’s a trick the brain plays by giving the sensation the limb is still attached to the body even though it is not. Is it a way to tell us we can suffer from something that does not exist? Something we wish we would have… I will not dare to suggest what kind of limb James Mercer implies these girls are missing, no, I will not go there, it’s probably and fortunately more subtle. At a less literal level, the missing limb is more equivalent to the power that represents sexuality, power that these girls are missing. This is an all powerful metaphor, so cryptic I bet most people don’t get it at first (I didn’t), but we all have suffered from a phantom limb one way or another

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