The Shins, Chutes Too Narrow
The Shins transform their fussiness into pop-song transcendence
"Kissing the Lipless," the opening track on The Shins' second album Chutes Too Narrow, opens with an excited little burst of clapping and a cheerleader-esque "Woo!" In the inverted emotional world of the Shins, this sort of gesture feels like foreign territory — despite the primary colors of their pop songs, the Shins themselves are definitely not Shiny Happy People. That little "woo!" feels feeble and clammy, the sort of deer-in-the-headlights sound a guy with a nervous stomach makes before boarding a rollercoaster, attempting to convince himself he's about to enjoy the death machine he's just strapped himself to.
The following song travels a similarly proscribed set of dips and highs, easing its way cautiously into an exhilarating burst of power chords before zipping itself back up tightly into a single strummed acoustic guitar. Songwriter James Mercer is a pop-song clinician, the kind of guy who likes to dole out big pleasures in pharmacologically safe doses, and "Kissing the Lipless" is a perfect example of his "take-two-and-call-me-in-the-morning" approach.
His lyrics, meanwhile, tread similarly uneasy ground between the cerebral and the visceral. The opening couplet could almost be mistaken for randy: "Called to see/ if your back was still aligned/ and your sheets were growing grass all on the corners of your bed." But he hastily clarifies that he called for much more than that, and things pretty quickly get complicated: "But you've got too much to wear on your sleeve/ and it's too much to do with me/ and secretly, I want to bury in the yard/ the gray remains of a friendship scarred." Woo.
Chutes Too Narrow catches Mercer and his band after their odd little bummer of a folk song "New Slang" had been blown up in one of the most supremely unlikely scenarios imaginable — with Princess Amidala clamping a pair of padded headphones on the guy from Scrubs and declaring that this unassuming little indie-pop band from Albuquerque would "change his life." The resulting bestselling soundtrack kickstarted a whole new indie cottage industry that found the Shins as its mascot. Mercer, who had sweated blood over their first record, Oh, Inverted World, doubled over twice as hard on Chutes Too Narrow, and the resulting record is a paean to the rewards and psychic toll of such painstaking craft.
The songs themselves are rapturous, beguiling things, shimmering with a thousand brilliant colors and evincing none of the carpal-tunnel hand cramps and drained Pepto-Bismol bottles that surely went into their creation. "Saint Simon" languidly follows a baroque, winding-staircase melody all the way down to a hanging minor chord: one that suddenly, gratifyingly opens into major, a gorgeous sigh of relief. Of course, the lyrics themselves chart no such release: The Shins are good at a lot of different things, but they are terrible at relaxing. "We've got rules and maps and guns at our backs, and we still can't just behave ourselves, even if to save our own lives," gripes Mercer on "So Says I," an almost school-marmish sentiment that you would expect from someone so adept at designing formal perfection. He would go onto to title their next record Wincing The Night Away, proof that he had a dry sense of humor, but Chutes Too Narrow was the moment where, hanging on his own self-imposed hook, Mercer translated his fussiness into transcendence.