Around the early 2000s, New York’s post-punk revival scene was flourishing. Bands such as Interpol, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and The Strokes were becoming staples in the community, and they incorporated the unvarnished instrumentation that came to solidify the genre. Just a couple of years later, however, indie rock took a less accelerated, more subdued turn. Death Cab for Cutie released Transatlanticism in 2003, and Arcade Fire released Funeral in 2004, both of which are seminal albums that marked this transition from fashionable indifference to sorrowful introspection.
The Shins found a balance between the two, opting for neither garage rock nor reverb-drenched lamentations. The Albuquerque-based band blended these styles, resulting in masterfully crafted, hook-laden pop songs. Their second record, Chutes Too Narrow, is now 15 years old, and those pop songs prove as timeless as ever. Recorded in songwriter James Mercer’s Portland basement, Chutes Too Narrow feels like a personal record regardless of its universal relatability. Mercer’s voice is the centerpiece of every song, placing his innovative, memorable melodies at the forefront. His vocal hooks sensibly and unpredictably weave their way in and out of straightforward chord structures.
Chutes Too Narrow is the musical proof that three-minute pop songs can be refreshing and substantial, and much of that proof lies within Mercer’s impressive vocal performances. Opener “Kissing the Lipless” exemplifies this, with Mercer singing in a quiet mid-register over an acoustic guitar. By the second verse, he opens into a bursting falsetto, only to return to a softer dynamic in the outro. “Fighting in a Sack” is another showcase of Mercer’s vocals, and despite being a verbally busy track, it doesn’t present itself as oversaturated or tedious. He makes use of each syllable to contribute to the brisk pace.
Melodic excellence aside, Mercer’s lyrics are dense yet literal. Metaphors are packed into seemingly every inch of space, and nothing feels clichéd or trite. He explores a variety of topics, as well, ranging from failed relationships to misanthropy and religion. His lyrics aren’t obscure to the point where no meaning can be gleaned from them, and even though they’re not shrouded in a nebulous haze, they’re always worth pondering over.
“So Says I” positions Mercer in a conflict of economic models, but he ultimately reasons that humanity is “a brutal kind” and, consequently, will never find utopia. Standout track “Saint Simon” shares a relatively similar sentiment. Mercer’s existential philosophy is the absence of one entirely. The ever-sought-after “meaning of life” will always be evasive, and religion, science, and philosophy will always try to come closer to finding it, but, as Mercer says, “There’s still so much that hides.” It’s why he leans toward uncertainty and even finds solace in it.
The embrace of apathy is a recurring theme throughout the record, and it acts as a welcoming, poignant contrast to the bouncy, eager nature of the music. “Fighting in a Sack” is the microcosm of this formula. Over swift drums and a swung strumming pattern, Mercer contemplates outdated modes of thought (“Marionettes on weakening cables”) and the impermanence of our lives (“We know our fate, and it’s a lot to put us through”).
However, The Shins don’t always adhere to this formula, staying hushed on songs such as “Pink Bullets” and closer “Those to Come”. They bring variety to the table, and they add contrast in the same way that the record’s lyrics juxtapose its instrumentation. “Gone for Good” is the twangy epitome of Mercer’s excellent use of dynamic variance. It directly follows one of the album’s louder moments, and, instead of coming across as inconsistent or jarring, it shows that Mercer’s musical assets exist on a spectrum. He isn’t a limited songwriter in the sense that he confines himself within one idea. He’s bursting with ideas, and Chutes Too Narrow lays them out in a beautiful, well-crafted pile.
Chutes Too Narrow is The Shins’ most cohesive, superb record to date. It’s an album that shows the timelessness of masterful pop songs and exquisite melodies. Most early-2000s indie rock is still wonderful to listen to, but it sounds a bit aged. Chutes Too Narrow, though, beams with a vitality that transcends age.
Essential Tracks: “Saint Simon”, “Gone for Good”, and “Kissing the Lipless”