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The Shins have always been about the small victories. While their love songs won't lift you up where you belong, they will lift you up from the bathroom stall you slept in last night. Though their simple, Kinksian progressions won't necessarily prepare you to meet your maker, they will always prepare you to meet your Maker's Mark. If their sunny pop hits can't give you a reason to live, they at least give you incentive not to off yourself until track four is over.
It's precisely these small epiphanies that lead underdog Portlander James Mercer to epic, Shakespearian endings. On the Shins' sadly beautiful second album, Chutes Too Narrow (Sub Pop), he finds grass where it shouldn't grow, the passing trains roar too loudly, the girl he dumped long ago now looks hot in tennis shorts. And that's all it takes for Mercer to discover that his "lust for life had gone away," that "most ideas turn to dust," that the human condition forces us to "form, feel, kill, propagate, only to die." When no sparrows sing on his morning walk, he's almost ready to heed the vultures' call: "I know I've got this side of me/That wants to grab the yoke from the pilot/And just fly the whole mess into the sea." You fear that when life gives Mercer some real lemons, he'll squeeze them right into his hemlock.
It's hard to believe that this is the same Byronic scribe who recently told The Stranger, "I'm happier lately." But such is the pop star's plight: Singers may act most content when fans feel their pain, but fans often listen because they're relieved that someone else is way sadder than they are. Lyrics aside, the Shins' music makes such a case for universal bliss that it could inspire those Nick Drake-loving kids from the Volkswagen commercial to turn away from their moonlit drive and head back to the party. Hands clap, men whoop, keyboards sparkle, and guitars ring bright and clear as the bell on a child's bicycle. And this sense of sonic optimism perfectly dovetails with Mercer's dour words: The fact that things can't possibly get worse should give us all hope for a better future.
That is, unless you believe we're all doomed. Mercer might: His personal despair stems from the idea that he's a product of history's devolution. Stepping in for the masses to brood in their stead, he sounds like he was hired by a generation of kids who would do the crying themselves if they weren't so busy rocking out to the Rushmore soundtrack. Jagged guitars chomp down like pointy eyeteeth on "So Says I," as Mercer's rosy voice rises toward the high notes, berating the father of utopianism for letting him down: "This is nothing like we've ever dreamt/Tell Sir Thomas More we got another failed attempt." The big still feed on the small, he fears, and even sure signs of "advancement" have just left us backtracking fast: "We've got rules and maps and guns in our backs," Mercer sings, "but we still can't just behave ourselves." A few tracks later, a kite falls on "Pink Bullets," then it winds through the next song like the specter of Ben Franklin's electricity experiment, as if the lightning bolt that came down centuries ago was a warning: Just because new inventions mean we can progress doesn't mean we should.
Returning to colonial times, "Young Pilgrims" finds Mercer fantasizing about the determination of the titular Mayflower crusaders. "I was raised to gather courage," he sings, "From those lofty tales so tried and true/If you're able, I'd suggest it/'Cause this modern thought can get the best of you." Perhaps those stories of discovery remind him that there are still some mistakes mankind hasn't yet made. And Mercer, God bless him, still wants to be alive to make them.
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