In this week’s edition of Dusting ‘Em Off, Staff Writer Henry Hauser revisits Chutes Too Narrow, the sophomore album of James Mercer’s acclaimed indie outfit The Shins for its 10th anniversary. A decade later, he discovers the album’s still lending solace to rudderless loners and overeducated neurotics from Oregon to the Garden State.
These days, James Mercer is sittin’ pretty. With a trio of Billboard Top 10s and his very own record label, The Shins’ singer-songwriter enjoys a coveted triumvirate of critical kudos, commercial appeal, and creative control that most artists encounter only in their wettest dreams. But a decade ago, the then 32-year-old Mercer was struggling. Coming off a toxic relationship and working a crappy day job, The Shins’ founder was in a bad place. Then, just as the band was wrapping up their sophomore LP in Mercer’s “not pleasant” basement studio, some schmuck broke in and swiped the master files. Despite the best efforts of Portland’s finest, the masters were never recovered; Mercer just couldn’t catch a break.
Though 2003 led off with frustration and anguish, it would eventually become the turning point of Mercer’s career. Channeling these feelings of detachment and haplessness driven by a rocky love life and professional setbacks galore, Mercer hatched Chutes Too Narrow, an immaculately polished and deeply personal offering that flows seamlessly between bubbly pop, intellectualized folk, and trippy psychedelica. By the end of the year, Chutes Too Narrow had recast the Portland, Oregon collective as indie rock trailblazers. And on its 10th anniversary, the album’s interwoven threads of self-conscious nostalgia, gauche timidity, and resilient pep are still lending solace to rudderless loners and overeducated neurotics from Oregon to the Garden State. Good thing Mercer backed up those master files.
Chutes Too Narrow kicks off with a quirky jolt: six crisp handclaps chased by a pitchy and exuberant, “WEEEEEOWW!” Backed by gentle acoustic strumming, Mercer’s requiem for the “grey remains of a friendship scarred” is abruptly cut off by shrill upbraids hurled at an erstwhile lover. Fluid electric guitar riffs and Jesse Sandoval’s heavy drums thrust the track forward, as Mercer lays into the song’s antagonist with a tongue of vinegar. But alongside all the bitterness, Mercer confesses an unmistakable nostalgia (“It’s hard to leave all these moments behind”). Down-tempo “Pink Bullets” picks up this theme of reluctant wistfulness, as Mercer vies to convince us that he’s focused on the days to come, rather than those past. Plodding along just a few words at a time, Mercer insists, “I don’t…look back…much…as a rule,” emphasizing “much”, as if to bolster the statement’s verity.
Throughout Chutes Too Narrow, characters are burdened with insoluble quagmires and crippling self-doubt; some are even alienated from their own personalities. On “Mine’s Not A High Horse”, Mercer describes an antagonist as “poorly cast as a malcontent”, while “Pink Bullets” conceives of life as a “crass and awkwardly cast” film. Even raucous rocker “Turn A Square”, an upbeat cut featuring Dave Hernandez’s pulsating bass lines, presents the singer’s Meta misgivings (“Have I left my home just to whine in this microphone?”). Torn between two thorny extremes, pop single “So Says I” sets up an impossible choice between dull, innocuous serenity and the brutal realities of human nature, as Mercer belts cagy lyrics atop thrashing guitars and cathartic cymbal smashes.
These twin maladies of stymieing nostalgia and internal tumult necessitate the search for a remedy. In the haunting “Saint Simon”, The Shins turn to love for relief. Melding Mercer’s signature head voice, psychedelic backup vocals, and Annemarie Ruljancich’s rich, warm violin, the singer censures “implements and texts designed by intellects” for obscuring what really matters. Shrugging off apathy and pretense, Mercer affirms that only the “solemn warmth” of affection counts in the end.
Unfortunately, love isn’t always the cure for heartache and anguish; it’s just as often the cause. Take “Gone For Good”, a pedal steel guitar song about repelling an ex-girlfriend’s attempts to resurrect a scorched relationship. Though the singer still clearly has feelings for his one-time sweetheart, he knows that recovery means putting the past in his rearview mirror (“I gotta leave here my girl/ Get on with my lonely life”). Sometimes the only way to survive life’s emotional labyrinth is to cut your losses and go it alone. Though it can be a long, chilling, and agonizing journey, The Shins assure us that we’ve all got the power to navigate these icy waters. Bittersweet yet evidently triumphant, Mercer boasts, “Now I stand on honest ground/ On honest ground.”
Following the release of Chutes Too Narrow, Mercer’s star shot skyward. Throw in a timely endorsement from Natalie Portman (“You gotta hear this one song. It’ll change your life, I swear”), and the rest is history. So what if she was playing a mentally damaged pathological liar? At just 35 minutes long, Chutes Too Narrow is one of the decade’s tightest folk-pop offerings, thanks in no small part to the deft pruning of producer Phil Ek (Built to Spill, Fleet Foxes, Father John Misty). The album isn’t just Mercer’s magnum opus; it’s a bona fide reservoir of reassuring sentiment that’s injected hope and vitality into the hearts of alienated Millennials for 10 years and counting. That’s why you back up your files, folks.