If you're one of the thousands who were smitten by the Shins' 2001 debut LP, Oh, Inverted World, then you're familiar with the Pavlovian response evoked by the ghastly whistles and jittery percussion that open the record: the glee in knowing that what's to follow are 11 songs of near indie perfection. Sixties mod rhythms are realized by acoustic guitar and subtle snare hits; reverb-soaked vocals shape rubber band melodies that challenge traditional pop phrasing yet remain catchy.
Hiding behind all that reverb is songwriter James Mercer's dark and witty language, literate descriptions of sinister imagery and spine-tingling darkness. “Go meander in the cold,” he sings on “Caring Is Creepy,” “Hail to your dark skin/ Hiding the fact you're dead again.”
The record's genius lies in its combination of chilling imagery with sunshine pop, each end of the emotional spectrum tethered to the other, translating into something equally fun, dark, and insightful.
But on the Shins' second full-length, Chutes Too Narrow, we get a glimpse into a brighter, happier Mercer head-space. Lifestyle changes — everything from breakups to relocations and the success of the band's debut — contributed to Mercer trading his heebie-jeebies for something entirely more cheerful. “I think during the first record, I was in sort of a rut,” he says via phone from his Portland, Ore., home. “I wanted to change pretty much all of the aspects of my life. This time I think I was a little more comfortable with my situation.”
But does the loss of sorrow mean the death of poignancy? With the stark contrast between lyrics and music gone, can the Shins still manage something noteworthy? These are questions as evocative as Chutes Too Narrow itself.
The Shins formed in Albuquerque in 1997 as an offshoot of a band called Flake. The goal of Mercer and drummer Jesse Sandoval (subsequent additions to the lineup included keyboardist Marty Crandall and bassist Neal Langford) was to do something a little bit different than Flake, which Mercer describes as “Superchunk-influenced.” “[The Shins] was our little side project,” he says. “We were gonna record shit on the four-track and try and make it cool.” Those four-track sessions would evolve into music that earned the Shins an opening slot touring with Modest Mouse. And that tour indirectly led to a relationship with indie juggernaut Sub Pop, which released both Inverted and Chutes.
When the band was almost done recording its debut, its deal with Sub Pop was finalized. It was around this same time that Mercer began to address his unhappiness. “I think during that period of time I changed all those things that were bothering me during that point in my life,” he says. “Before the record came out, before it was done being recorded, I had quit my job, broken up with a girl, moved out of my house, and then eventually left the state. Everything had changed.”
The songwriter packed his bags and hightailed it to Portland to escape the lack of inspiration in Albuquerque, a city he refers to as the sort of place that attracts college kids “who wear weird sandals and go hiking and grow their hair long or maybe the type that are into New Age-type stuff.”
To address the financial concerns raised by quitting a job and moving to a new city, Mercer and company licensed the song “New Slang” to McDonald's for use in a television commercial, a move criticized by certain purists (usually those who don't realize how difficult it is for an indie band to support itself). “The band had just started,” he says, “we had no audience at the time and we just kind of needed money. We didn't know how many records we were ever gonna sell, so we were like, 'Are we gonna pass up this opportunity for very superficial reasons like how we will look to people who care about that sort of thing?'”
One thousand seven hundred and fifty-six miles, a record deal, and an indie cult-following later, Mercer began writing Chutes Too Narrow, the album that reflects all the changes he went through. But rather than simply chronicle the last two years on Chutes, Mercer attempts to make a statement about the importance of life's ups and downs. The new record often flips the equation found on Inverted, where dark lyrics were combined with cheery music. Sketched now are sad musical scenarios behind celebratory words. On “Pink Bullets,” in which a narrator has traded his cold past for crayon-drawn new hope, slow acoustic guitars trudge along among elegiac organs and bleating electric leads.
When the lyrics do hearken back to the gloom of Mercer's previous songwriting, they do so with all the same peppy rhythms and happy melodies we loved from Inverted. On the record's first track, “Kissing the Lipless,” as the vocalist sings about “kissing the lipless who bleed all the sweetness away,” the music is all War-era U2: Offbeat drums and urging guitars create the sort of sound over which Bono might sing inspirationally about changing social consciousness.
The world Mercer maps out for us is hardly one-dimensional. Instead, narrators navigate through dark, vast oceans, interesting and fluid in themselves, but fascinating, more so, when those narrators peek their heads above the water to notice a sunlit, stretching sky, uninhibited by the restraints of water. The difference ends up being the lack of definition, a contrast to the polarized nature of Inverted. Here, Mercer is dealing with middle ground, the gray area between emotional extremes.
“[T]hey are cold, still, waiting in the ether to form, feel, kill, propagate, only to die,” he sings on the album's closer, “Those to Come,” causing us to wonder if Mercer has disregarded all he has learned to retreat back into his previous, darker life. But he quickly qualifies this with “[they] dissolve magically, absurdly, they'll end, leave, dissipate, coldly and strangely return.” The dissolving here is what seems to be the point of the whole record: Things change, things grow, and things die, but the acceptance of the process is the first step to contentment.