Tuesday, October 28
The summer of 2001 was a shining time for me. I did a lot of climbing mountains and exploring new cities and otherwise playing in the sun. I got to spend a lot of time in northern California. I was blissfully in love for the second time in my life, with the added poignancy and immediacy of impending separation. It was also the summer that the Shins entered my life.
I picked up a copy of their debut, Oh, Inverted World, in a used record store on Telegraph Avenue, and was instantly won over by its lovingly crafted vignettes of snail-collecting and untied shoelaces; its affecting accounts of relationships wrought with uncertainty; its wistful but optimistic vision of a life "cradled softly in the hands of some strange and gentle child." There was something wonderfully unassuming and refreshing about the album, not only the lyrics but the music as well; sunny and plaintive and fresh. Folks made a lot of comparisons, especially to music from the ‘60s – the Byrds, the Kinks, the Beach Boys – and I could understand what they meant, but to me none of that felt quite right, or rather it was missing the point. It was hard to pin down, but it seemed to me that the Shins had used familiar elements (soft, jangly guitars; understated touches of synthesizer) to create a wholly original sound. A lot of it had to do with songwriter James Mercer’s uncanny way with melody and song form: imbuing each section of a song with an arresting melody all its own, but linking them so that verse and chorus (or, just as often, more inventive, unorthodox structures) flowed together in unexpected and deeply gratifying ways – and effortlessly; never sounding complex or unnatural. Simply stated, Oh, Inverted World speaks to me on a more direct and personal level than almost anything else I’ve heard before or since. What’s more, most other people who have encountered it seem to be similarly charmed.
So I was far from the only one who’s spent the last two years anxiously awaiting more Shins music, a long wait that has finally ended with the arrival of Chutes Too Narrow. This is the new album: ten songs, just over half an hour of music – and a lot to live up to. Getting to know a new album by a familiar artist, especially one I’ve loved so dearly, is an delicate experience. It usually takes a few listens before I can even begin to consider it on its own terms. At first I can’t think beyond how it compares, on the most basic, sonic level, to the earlier album(s), and particularly to other music – perhaps because before I’m acclimatized to the album as a unique entity, the distinctions between its familiar and unfamiliar elements stand out most strongly.
In this case – although, thankgoodnessfully, that ineffable, unmistakable Shinsness is still very much present – I do hear decidedly more likeness to "outside" influences as well, most of them, predictably I suppose, from the 1960s (though always with guileless nostalgia and never retro-stylistic affectation.) Generally, the greater presence of rough-edged, Nuggetsy electric guitar on this record – its first squalls, bursting in after the first, acoustic verse of insistent opener "Kissing the Lipless," are emphasized by their prominence in the mix – gives the album a slightly rockier cast, but it’s not as disruptive as that initial appearance might suggest. It works marvelously on that track, and on the buoyant, driving single "So Says I" with its addictive a cappella falsetto hook (undeniably Beach Boys, but filtered through a rawer, blues-rock aesthetic), but elsewhere costs the relatively brusque, fast-paced "Fighting in a Sack" some of the delicacy it might have enjoyed otherwise. Meanwhile, the haunting, string-laden "Saint Simon" hearkens back to the lush, Baroque sensibilities of bands like the Association and the Left Banke, while the divorce ballad "Gone for Good," which contains perhaps the albums most indelible hook in the thick, bittersweet harmonies of its chorus, is pure Byrdsian country, awash in syrupy pedal steel to temper the woeful farewell of the lyrics.
The fact that such comparisons are possible isn’t by any means a criticism in itself. I certainly don’t subscribe to the cult of originality, and anyway there’s nothing unoriginal about having evident stylistic influences. Besides, surely, Chutes Too Narrow sounds more like the Shins than anything else. Mercer’s charmingly literate lyrics, poetic but rarely pretentious, have lost none of their humor and perceptiveness. As I’ve suggested, his songs have branched out stylistically with considerable success, without losing their essential character. Significantly, Chutes is enjoyably reminiscent of Oh, Inverted World without cleaving too closely to that album’s blueprint. (With one notable exception: "Young Pilgrims," stripped down to just guitar and vocals, occupies melodic and sonic territory undeniably close to debut highlight "New Slang" – but it’s territory well worth revisiting, and this stands on its own as one of Chutes’ finest moments, with introspective lyrics that recall World’s redemptive sketch of childhood, "Know Your Onion.")
However, though I’m loath to say it, some of these songs are less fully realized than they could be – a few, such as "Turn a Square" and the spare "Pink Bullets," are structured very simply around one or two guitar figures, and though it doesn’t make them any less enjoyable to hear for now, it bespeaks a diminished level of substance – there won’t be as much here to unfold and relish with many repeated listenings. In a sense this is just quibbling – Oh, Inverted World may have had a tracklist of nothing but absolute gems (except, some might argue, for the two "experimental" interludes), but it was an uncommonly special album – probably made more so for me by the idyllic circumstances in which I first experienced it – and it’s not really a fair point of comparison for anything, even something made it by the same creators. In any case, it’s probably too early to say how well Chutes Too Narrow stands up against its predecessor. What’s already apparent is that it’s good enough that it won’t have to.