There is a certain stage in the life of a band where the music they create digs into a certain sound and where they work out all the kinks to be perfectly comfortable with their style. For retro-pop minstrels The Shins, their most recent release might, unfortunately, signal just that time. Chutes Too Narrow, released by Sub Pop in late October, seems to be the culmination and synthesis of a solid musical progression from good, yet uncertain and unchallenging, pop music to better, more confident, but still unchallenging, pop music.
Gone are the jumbled, nervous-feeling overlaps and somewhat out-of-place echoes present in Oh, Inverted World and Know Your Onion! More than ever, the songs are refined and professional. With Chutes, The Shins seem to settle down and get comfortable in their place as makers of simply good, yet beautifully complicated pop music a perfectly respectable, if not ambitious, place to stand as musicians.
Vocalist and guitarist James Mercer's lyrics in Chutes far surpass those of the albums that precede it, and they may be the main aspect of the release that pushes it out past the realm of normal pop. There are no incessant repeating choruses, and each song manages just the right amount of complication to stick in the listener's mind (but not in an annoying way). I will not quote much, as this review makes the case that it is the entirety of each intricately woven story that is most powerful. Some individual lines do, however, stand out.
"Mercy's eyes are blue and when she places them in front of you, nothing holds a Roman candle to the solemn warmth you feel," from "Saint Simon" is a perfect example of the beautiful lyrical construction Mercer manages. Mercy places her eyes in front of you, nothing holds a Roman candle to it; those two words, used in that context, exemplify Mercer's ability to cause a sense of wonder in the listener just as Elvis Costello and Tom Waits do where you go, "How did he come across that word? That word is perfect!"
"Since then, it's been a book you read in reverse so you understand less as the pages turn or a movie so crass and awkwardly cast, even I could play the star," from "Pink Bullets," is an example of a completely different kind of lyrical artistry. Metaphor, simile, and rhyme are thrown naturally and comfortably into just the right places showing both the skill and dexterity of Mercer's writing.
These are little poetic essays that, seemingly by chance alone, rhyme and fit perfectly into overlapping vocal and guitar melodies. These melodies again, as though completely without forethought stumble upon a perfect coexistence with the instrumentation of keyboardist Marty Crandall, drummer Jesse Sandoval, recently appointed bassist Dave Hernandez and guitarist Mercer.
From the first listen, it is evident that Mercer and Sandoval are the backbone of the band, musically. They stay relatively static; for the most part there's a supportive triad of vocals, clean guitar, and drums that hold all the songs together stylistically, whereas otherwise the additional instrumentation might make some songs seem out of place.
This rhythm and harmony triad creates a spacious, luxurious backdrop for the others to orchestrate exactly what works in each song, whether it be the sparse, lazy lap-steel of "Gone for Good," the angelic Beatles-meet-church-choir harmonies of "Saint Simon," or the late-'50s rock-'n'-roll riff work on "Turn a Square."
Easily the best song on the album, "So Says I" shines with a clean, epic storytelling that hearkens back, as many of the tracks do, to The Who's heroic wonder and discovery a puzzling, new-school curve on the feeling inspired by songs like "I've Had Enough" off of the Who's grand Quadrophenia. It is beautifully started, built, bridged, and concluded a pure little cryptic tale of some powerful emotional movement. Sad and happy at the same time, Mercer's lyrical mastery lights it up with lines that feel as though they fit too well to possibly rhyme as well as they do.
"Those to Come," the sleepy (yet not tired) conclusion, makes the album end like a comfortable nap following a long day. After a couple of listens, I had no choice but to curl up in a blanket on my easy chair. It fit so well that I would not be surprised to learn that it was conceived, written, and recorded in this most luxurious of positions.
Just as "So Says I" and "Those to Come" exhibit the positive sides of this release, they also highlight its downfalls. These songs, like the album, are merely good pop music. Poetic lyrics plus pretty melodies plus build-ups that go just far enough to display emotion without offending anyone. What I mean to say is that what they do, they do well, but what they do doesn't turn out to be all that much. They expand so little lyrically, if at all from what makes just plain good pop music that, while I appreciate the beauty of the album wholeheartedly, I have serious doubts about it staying in my personal rotation for more than a month or two.
If these musicians, talented and inspired as they are, were to work towards expanding on, and exploring the possibilities of, pop music, they would no doubt create something great. Now that they have almost perfected what they do, I am eager to see if they stretch from this place of comfort and put together something truly revolutionary. The ripple Chutes makes in the progression of music is, while gorgeous, very small, but there's no telling if this is truly the synthesis of former work or merely a stabilizing step on a journey towards greatness.