The Shins
Chutes Too Narrow
Sub Pop
2003
A



this is what Chutes Too Narrow sounds like to me:

“you’re raving in your criminal lies”, “they ought to drown him in holy water”, “marionettes on weakening cables”, “it’s a book you read in reverse, so you understand less as the pages turn”, “but all our crying voices they can’t turn it around”, “I don’t know why I can’t just stay the course, keep my hands on the wheel”, “something inside me went away”, “We got rules and maps and guns at our backs, but we still can’t just behave ourselves even if to save our own lives”

And especially this:

“But I learned fast how to keep my head up
‘Cause I know I got this side of me
That wants to grab the yoke from the pilot
And just fly this whole mess into the sea”

What the hell happened to the Shins? I’ve been listening to my copy of Oh, Inverted World and no matter how much I focus on the lyrics, to try to discern a similar level of dread and righteous anger, it just dissolves back into the pleasant mild psychedelic surrealism that characterized the Shins debut. But here James Mercer’s lyrics jump out at me, making me once again glad that I live in Canada and not further south: this is the sound of a man who is definitely not happy with where his country is headed.

To complement this, the Shins’ music has grown by leaps and bounds. The woozy charms of Oh, Inverted World and ‘New Slang’ are still present, but the songs are now more immediate, either being crunchier than before (‘So Says I‘, ‘Turn A Square’) or just as delicate (but somehow less fragile).

The last song on the album, ‘Those to Come’ is the perfect example. Consisting mostly of a soft acoustic guitar and Mercer’s voice, it captivates in a way that the Shins older slow songs don’t. Mercer’s voice in particular is far stronger here, and all over Chutes Too Narrow, than it was before. The Shins still write and perform excellent pop songs, but now their confidence, reach and performance match the brilliance of the writing. Not only does Chutes Too Narrow avoid the sophomore curse, it stomps all over Oh, Inverted World and makes you wonder if the Shins can keep improving at this rate.

And despite the less than happy tone of the lyrics, the Shins don’t sound defeated or depressed; this is a vibrantly alive record, whether speaking of divorce by train (“Just leave the ring on the rail for the wheels to nullify”) or childhood (“Of course I was raised to gather courage from those lofty tales so tried and true”), and Mercer and co.’s undeniable ear for a good hook serves these songs well. At this point, in late autumn, it looks like a prime candidate for best “indie” record of the year.
Reviewed by: Ian Mathers
Reviewed on: 2003-10-22
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