Complete gorgeousness is the refuge of suckers. Of course, your smarter popsters have known this for decades. But how many of them have been able to offer irrefutable proof? How many have expanded the logic of rock ‘n’ roll beyond simply placing pretty songs into ugly surroundings? Very fewbecause putting the theory into practice requires some serious talent.
The Shins’ new Chutes Too Narrow is the kind of record that makes it seem all so elementary. Frontman James Mercer is a gifted songwriterthat much was established in 2001 by the band’s blew-in-from-the-desert debut, Oh, Inverted World. But more important, he senses when his songs need no more work. If anything, they’re metagorgeousthey bypass gorgeousness to create something more elusive. If that sounds like bullshit, just listen to Mercer’s voice: No matter how you hear it, it ain’t pretty. Somehow, though, it doesn’t matter.
This probably would be the place to insert a paragraph about great songwriters with terrible voices. But that’s not the point. The point is that the songs on Chutes reveal their joys slowly. They’re hardly standoffish, but they’re not necessarily ingratiating, either. Mercer’s voice has two modes: A nasal, ordinary-sounding timbre, and another that is sometimes scratchy and sometimes piercing. In short, he’s both a better singer than Michael Stipe and one who makes Brian Wilson sound like a cherub.
Throughout Chutes, Mercer refuses to oversell any of his melodies, even when the notes might suggest something grander. Take the album’s folky centerpiece, “Young Pilgrims.” The chorus offers a tidy metaphor for what it’s like to come of age in the shadow of baby boomers: “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 the whole mess into the sea.” Mercer’s tuneful delivery and acoustic guitar line sound buoyant at first, but the vibe eventually reveals itself to be slightly menacing, slightly desperate. This is a beautiful anthem for those who live with a smile on the surface but frustration at the core. It’s a case in which nihilism offers solace: “Fate isn’t what we’re up against,” Mercer sings. “There’s no design or flaws to find.”
Anybody who spent time with Inverted World knows that Mercer’s lyrics can be a little long-winded, too. Like Stephen Malkmus, he’s a word lover who sometimes chooses to obscure a song’s meaning just because he can. The tender, slightly spooky “New Slang,” for instance, delivered a payload of situational irony when McDonald’s used it for a commercial featuring a dad and his baby. The burger-maker conveniently chose only the vocal-free sections, leaving out zingers such as “Godspeed all the bakers at dawn/May they all cut their thumbs/And bleed into their buns/’Til they melt away.” Director Roman Coppola also used a cheery Mercer-penned instrumental in a Gap commercial featuring four young starlets riding bikes through a nearly empty town. Some Shins-style wordplay would’ve killed the moment, for sure.
It’s clear from the first few seconds of Chutes that Madison Avenue might not find much to use this time ’round. The disc’s leadoff track, “Kissing the Lipless,” is dynamic and sweeping, building from acoustics to electrics as Mercer sings about “the great remains of a friendship scarred.” By the song’s coda, a fight has broken out between Mercer’s wall-of-fuzz licks and Marty Crandall’s shimmering keyboard scales. The keyboard has more staying power, it turns out, but it can’t erase the thought that the song is both sweet and strident, in a way that few ’70s punks or ’90s slackers would’ve understoodthough members of the spikily tuneful early-’80s Flying Nun scene would’ve probably adopted Mercer as one of their own.
It matters that the Shins are from Albuquerque, N.M. The smartest and most memorable indie rock tends to come from places with, say, bad weather, or unpleasant landscapes, or too many people in too small of an area. The poppier-minded Inverted World was free of all that: It drifted into sunsets, country-style, without sounding escapist. It recalled Britpop but kept it at a distance. It was lo-fi in the way that the desert seems to make everything lo-fi. The obvious thing to have done for LP No. 2 would be to stay put.
For most of Chutes, though, Mercer planted his ass in an indie-rock mecca, Portland, Ore. He also brought in an old genre reliable, Phil Ek, to clean up the final product. Strangely, two things happened: (1) The Shins’ country influences got stronger: “Gone for Good,” for example, would sound right at home on Wilco’s earliest records; and (2) the band’s British influences tilted slightly more toward the ’80s: The guitar solo at the end of the throbbing, synth-supported “Mine’s Not a High Horse” owes everything to Echo and the Bunnymen, the Mighty Lemon Drops, and so forth.
The country-Britpop battle really rages on “Saint Simon,” which begins, harmlessly enough, with a singsongy melody that’s a direct descendant of TV-friendly late-’60s psychedelia. Mercer quickly weirds things up, however, ending his verses with brief, unexpected harmonies that recall the choruses of those slick countrypolitan hits that Nashville churned out in the earlier half of that decade. The Shins aren’t just screwin’ around, though: The song sounds more natural than any of the similar cross-pollination that R.E.M. tried on Out of Time.
Single “So Says I” is equally complex, but it’s louder, so the smart touches don’t stand out as clearly. The main riff is pure road-movie rush, and the no-frills rhythm section of drummer Jesse Sandoval and bassist David Hernandez provides a splashy touch of rockabilly. Mercer ensures that the song rockets in a fresh direction, though: His vocals are urgent, high-pitched, and ragged, and the song builds to the line “So says I/We are a brutal kind.” Rockers love that kind of sentiment, of course, but in Mercer’s more delicate hands, it still comes across as moderately scary.
On Chutes’ second half, Mercer sounds less concerned with humanity as a whole than with one-on-one human encounters. Overall, such songs aren’t quite as complicated as previous efforts, so he relies on pure emotion more than he did on Inverted World. He gets quite literal on “Gone for Good,” for instance, telling a paramour, “Just leave the ring on the rail for the wheels to nullify” as a pedal steel leads him out of town. “[H]oney, you cannot wrestle a dove/…I found a fatal flaw in the logic of love.” But don’t worry, toots: Mercer is just naturally tough to pin downas a lover as well as a songwriter, it seems. And if this is all a little disappointing, it’s also one of his more conventional numbers.
Chutes’ closer, “Those to Come,” puts his talent into a better context. The vocals are mellow, the words are abstract and poetic, and the melody is placid. But the guitar-playing is roughed-edged and halting. Nick Drake, say, would’ve had the song fluttering toward some sort of aesthetic heaven. OK, Drake was hardly a sucker, but he was one of those rarest of geniuses who hovered close to true complete gorgeousnessand burned out from the experience. It’s not that Mercer’s too scared to follow suit. He’s simply too shrewd. CP