Post-Millennial Classic: The Story and Meaning Behind “Gone for Good,” The Shins’ Country-Tinged Classic

I find a fatal flaw / In the logic of love. So sings James Mercer of The Shins on their 2003 song “Gone for Good.” Those lines are so good that they would prop up even a pedestrian track. Luckily, the rest of “Gone for Good” rises to that promise and then some.

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What is the song about? Why does James Mercer still get a tad frustrated with himself when he hears it? And how was the song timed to take off on a new wave of popularity surrounding The Shins not long after its release? Here are all the details on the sublimely bittersweet “Gone for Good.”

Narrow Developments

The Shins released their debut album Oh, Inverted World in 2001, and the record immediately launched the band—and its prolific lead singer/songwriter James Mercer—to the forefront of the lo-fi indie pop crowd. However, Mercer wasn’t all that crazy about the sound on the record, believing it could have been recorded a bit better.

When The Shins dialed in for their follow-up album, Mercer was determined not to make those same mistakes. And he also wanted to broaden the horizons of the music a bit. To that end, the album was initially recorded in the basement of Mercer’s childhood home in Portland, Oregon. But the band then worked with producer Phil Ek in Seattle to polish up some recording loose ends and mix Chutes Too Narrow, which came out in 2003.

In the case of “Gone for Good,” Mercer drew on his love for country music. When he was a child, he would go to see his dad play country music in clubs. Perhaps that’s why he and the band sound so authentic on the song, even as it was a pretty striking departure from much of the other material on the record.

The lyrics came about when Mercer recalled a failed romantic relationship. He felt he and the girl were together for the wrong reasons and that it would have been better off for both if the dalliance had ended sooner. Looking back on “Gone for Good” in an episode of the podcast Life of the Record, Mercer even wished the guy in the song had been more direct:

“I really had a hard time letting people down. So I would have a relationship that would last longer than it should, you know, because I just didn’t, it was so difficult for me to just break it off, you know, and I think that is lazy and it was weak of me sometimes. And I think I’m kind of angry at myself even writing this song, you know, ‘Just want to say, this is what needs to happen.’ Like, you know, ‘We’re not married, it’d be better for you and better for me if we just, yeah, separated or I guess went our separate ways.'”

Chutes Too Narrow came out in late 2003. In early 2004, a movie called Garden State played at the Sundance Film Festival, and The Shins were prominently featured on the soundtrack. That gave the album and the band a huge boost and brought much more exposure to winning songs like “Gone for Good.”

What is the Meaning of “Gone for Good”?

Untie me, I’ve said no vows, Mercer begins on “Gone for Good.” It’s a reference to the scene in old movies where the damsel is tied to the train tracks, but it also suggests there’s nothing really holding these two people together. Just leave the ring on the rail / For the wheels to nullify, he says, implying that the oncoming train might be useful after all.

Mercer uses clever metaphors to describe the inertia in the relationship: That’s enough sitting on the fence / For the fear of breaking dams. He explains why her efforts are futile: You want to fight for this love / But honey you cannot wrestle a dove. His final words are meant to make a clean break without a possible reunion: So get used to the lonesome / Girl, you must atone some / Don’t leave me no phone number there.

As for those lines about love’s logic, they seem to sum up the feelings of anyone who’s been caught in a relationship that no longer makes any sense. “Gone for Good” displayed The Shins stretching out their musical boundaries, while James Mercer delivers a striking tale about how leaving for the unknown can be far preferable to holding on to something familiar that’s crumbling away.

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Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Arroyo Seco Weekend

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