Yeah man, I’m not into that emo shit anymore, it’s all whiny songs about girls. I’m into Death Cab and Bright Eyes and Okkervil River and the Wrens and the Decemberists and the Shins now.
Talk to anyone over the age of 30 who still cares about emo music (or don’t; you only have so much time in this mortal coil) and they’ll almost certainly have some version of this story, a sort of Rumspringa where they pivoted hard towards indie rock before eventually returning to the fold. That one above just so happens to be mine in 2003 or so, which offered a pretty soft landing for people who were into Dashboard Confessional and Jimmy Eat World and the Promise Ring a few years prior. Indie rock’s A-list was becoming increasingly populated with bespectacled, thesaurus-thumbing bookworms, and you had the likes of Adam Brody and Michael Cera and T.R. Knight and Zach Braff emerging as a new kind of leading man: wimpy, self-deprecating, indie-coded guys who still ended up with a conventionally attractive female co-star. What a time to be a wimpy, self-deprecating guy!
Of course, applying any amount of distance or scrutiny to this era reveals a lot of it as a cautionary tale, proof that the nerds could be just as cruel as the jocks – and perhaps even more pernicious, since they believe they’re morally superior on account of their quick wit and vintage cardigans and complete disinterest in sportsball. Ben Gibbard, or at least the narrators in Death Cab For Cutie songs – kind of a dick! The Meadowlands, definitely not a how-to guide for relationships! Colin Meloy, some questionable choices! Will Sheff, prone to Peter Pan and white knight syndrome! And really, Conor Oberst wasn’t trying to fool anyone, he just had the juice to pull it off.
But surely you can’t lump James Mercer into that just because a bunch of dudes modeled a completely insufferable persona off a couple scenes from Garden State, right? Who even knew what the hell he was singing about most of the time? Apparently not the ad wizards at McDonald’s! When it comes to close analysis of the Shins, I find myself thinking of a line from “Pink Bullets”: “It’s been a book you read in reverse/ So you understand less as the pages turn.” But don’t just take my word for it; read just about any review of the Shins’ Chutes Too Narrow from 2003 and there will be almost no mention whatsoever about it being one of the meanest little albums of that entire era of mean little albums.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a half hour of brilliant pop craftsmanship, as immediately impressive as it is lyrically elusive, a combination that makes its replay value inexhaustible. But having taken survey of the biggest possible topics – love, politics, friendship, the music industry – Mercer comes up with almost nothing positive to say about any of them. Though its candy-coated art design and unfussy production implies the exact opposite, Chutes Too Narrow — released 20 years ago this Saturday — is a classic “darker, more introspective sophomore album.”
Much of its initial charm was credited to producer Phil Ek, whose canonical work with Built To Spill, Modest Mouse, and Unwound helped solidify The Shins’ transition from spiritually Pacific Northwest indie to actual Pacific Northwest indie. Mercer moved his base of operations from Albuquerque to Portland and unwittingly found himself living next to a literal crack house; when his neighbors got busted by the police, they assumed Mercer snitched on them and robbed his house in revenge, taking the “New Slang” master tapes with them. Subsequently moving into the house where Elliott Smith recorded Roman Candle somehow managed to pass for an upgrade in vibes.
This was obviously an unnerving experience for Mercer, though it mostly serves as decorative fringe in an otherwise unremarkable narrative. Mercer made the usual allusions to leaving bad relationships and bad jobs, but not much about the stress of following up a record which had been credited with single-handedly lifting Sub Pop out of its Y2K slump. “The pressure to prove myself as a viable writer had never been so pronounced,” Mercer says in the press release for Chutes Too Narrow’s 20th anniversary edition, and…could a guy who wrote “Caring is Creepy” and “New Slang” really doubt whether he’s a viable writer? Not “legendary” or “life changing,” but viable.
While 2001’s Oh, Inverted World contained a handful of indelible pop songs, a good portion of it did get by on hazy vibes. Removing the security blanket of downy reverb rendered Chutes Too Narrow’s most spare, singer-songwriter moments (“Young Pilgrims,” “Pink Bullets”) as foreshadowing for the Shins becoming Mercer’s solo project. The remaining frill – a whisper of a synth line on the chorus of “Mine’s Not A High Horse,” a few harmonica solos – proved far more impactful than the track-stuffing that typified the later Shins albums, as well as his work with Danger Mouse in Broken Bells.
But without the autumn sweater coziness, Mercer was practically begging for his words to be taken at face value. Maybe add some slicker distortion to the guitars or a more nasal affect to the vocals and the single most hair-raising moment of the Shins’ entire catalog – “You tooooooold us of your new life there” – reveals “Kissing The Lipless” for what it is: a revenge fantasy against an ex as spiteful as anything being released on Vagrant or Drive Thru at the time. Little about “Gone For Good” should have been open to interpretation, even if a marriage annulment is rendered with typically florid Mercer-isms: “Just leave the ring on the rail for the wheels to nullify,” “It took me all of a year/ To put the poison pill to your ear.” In the chorus, when he sings, “I find a fatal flaw in the logic of love/ And go out of my head,” he sounds relatable and sympathetic — a high, lonesome hero suited to the countrified lope of the music itself.
But let’s consider how Mercer explained that line to The A.V. Club, that love can’t be untethered from animal instinct: “I mean, there are people who won’t be considered attractive, and they’ll be left behind. We have this thing where we think that there’s something universal and true about love, that somehow it’s what’s inside that counts, when in reality, to a certain extent, that’s just not true. It’s not actually what counts the most, and that’s the fatal flaw.” Bruh. Possibly related, on America’s Next Top Model contestant Elyse Sewell, “wore three different Shins T-shirts on the show,” according to Mercer. At the time, the aspiring med student was dating Shins keyboardist Marty Crandall and was named one of “2005’s 10 Sexiest Geeks” by Wired, alongside the founders of Gawker and Bookslut. Maybe this didn’t influence Mercer’s writing at all, but let’s just remember what mid-aughts internet culture was really like anyway.
That said, Chutes Too Narrow evades any real accusations of misogyny because the bummer love songs are of a piece with a greater, all-encompassing misanthropy. The melodic sophistication of “Saint Simon” is so awe-inspiring that I barely bothered to engage with the actual lyrics, lest it kill the entire vibe. And indeed, Mercer seems to believe that the scientific, spiritual, and sentimental realms are equally incapable of explaining the point of our existence. Perhaps if I had managed to see the video on MTV2 at the time, I would’ve caught the message of lead single “So Says I,” a song which views the human race as unable to find happiness in either a socialist or capitalist system. It’s also the one the Shins performed on an episode of Gilmore Girls. Not even ex-members of the Shins are spared. Former bassist Neal Langford is rumored to be the target of “Mine’s Not A High Horse,” but even with Mercer’s unruffled delivery, anyone who chooses to makes music with him is given fair warning for a similar outcome – “These are the muddy waters/ I’m swimming in to make a living/ Were I to drown in them/ It should come as no surprise.”
Mercer’s cynicism doesn’t end up conflicting with the Shins’ agreeable indie rock, but rather corroborates his emerging persona – a quintessential pop curmudgeon who finds clever lyrical turns and resolving chord progressions more manageable (and thus, satisfying) than human interaction. In a strangely dramatized 2007 Spin profile (the decision to ship over 200,000 copies of Wincing The Night Away is described in the sub-hed as “Sub Pop’s biggest gamble”), the Shins recall a night in London where an unnamed member ended up at a hotel after party with the Strokes. I’m going to assume it wasn’t Mercer, who spent an earlier part of the interview admitting that the hardest part about the Shins’ newfound fame was picking up basic party etiquette on the fly (“I didn’t learn social skills in high school…I didn’t have a social life in high school”).
But it’s not Mercer’s mean streak alone that makes Chutes Too Narrow an enduring work so much as it is the subtlety of it all. While mining the same subject matter as, say, The Ugly Organ and The Meadowlands and Lifted, the cryptic nature of Mercer’s songwriting allows the album to exist in a state unburdened by the listener’s specific post-grad angst. But the fact that the mean streak is there at all gives Chutes Too Narrow a crucial emotional charge for what might otherwise be an album of likable songs that was most often used as a comparative point for the ensuing rush of cuddly and inoffensive blog-rock bands. In retrospect, it appears that Rogue Wave’s entire time on Sub Pop was an explicit means of bridging the gap between Chutes Too Narrow and the next Shins album – the anticipation of which was escalated by both the absence of actual Shins music and the release of Garden State. (Side note: Either I can’t be the only one who misremembered that movie having come out before Chutes Too Narrow or my flawed recollection of that era is a result of my brain floating in a pool of Sparks Ultra).
But even after Garden State eventually pushed Oh, Inverted World to platinum status (the only Sub Pop album to reach that mark aside from Bleach and Give Up), I recall that Chutes Too Narrow was viewed as superior in almost every way. It’s an opinion which seemed to hold true throughout the rest of the 2010s, as Chutes appeared on more “best of the decade lists” despite its lesser commercial profile; even on Pitchfork’s People’s List, reader-voted survey of the site’s first 25 years, Chutes Too Narrow topped Oh, Inverted World, clocking in at #46 compared to the latter’s #55 rank.
Nowadays, I’m not sure where Chutes Too Narrow stands with “the kids” (or at least old heads’ perceptions of what “the kids” think). I sometimes see Chutes Too Narrow celebrated as the Shins’ undeniable masterwork. I sometimes see it discussed in the same way as Room On Fire or Contra or Neon Bible, lacking the paradigm-shifting impact of its predecessor, but ultimately a more satisfying work. Its streaming numbers are somehow completely dwarfed by those of Wincing The Night Away and even 2012’s Port Of Morrow, which contained the Shins’ highest-charting song on Billboard. Most of the time, I’m not even sure where I stand myself, but it basically comes down to this: Oh, Inverted World is the album I revisit when I want to retreat into “that last year of college.” Chutes Too Narrow is the Shins album that feels most suited to the stuff that comes after, putting on a brave face and hoping no one truly wants to know how you’re feeling today.