In The Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson writes of Bill Murray: "It is those who are merely inhabiting a difficult position (up a tree or at the dead end of an argument) who have the best chance of being funny." In movies like Ed Wood, Rushmore, and, most recently, Lost in Translation, Murray communicates desperate sadness and pointed, self-entertaining humor as, respectively, a droll transsexual, a disaffected millionaire, and a disconnected action hero. He is his own straight man; his constant smirk is haunted by perpetually tired eyes and that slightly furrowed brow.
In the bizarre world of indie pop, Murray's psychic twin is James Mercer, singer and head songwriter of the Shins, an Albuquerque, New Mexico, band that sound so unlike any expectations of an Albuquerque, New Mexico, band that they relocated to Portland. Ensconced in the Northwest, they recorded Chutes Too Narrow with Built to Spill collaborator Phil Ek. It's the follow-up to their 2001 cult-fave Oh, Inverted World!, a quirkily nostalgic album about the "untied shoelaces of your life."
Chutes Too Narrow takes its title from the song "Young Pilgrims," a bouncy piece of chipper college-pub folk whose lyrics at first seem charmingly impenetrable in the spirit of early R.E.M., only without the mumbling. The more you sing happily along with Mercer, however, the more you realize "Young Pilgrims" is about seasonal depression, social isolation, and thoughts of suicide: "I know that I've got this side of me/That wants to grab the yoke from the pilot and/Fly this whole mess into the sea."
This is how Chutes Too Narrow operates: It grabs your ears with its bright melodies, energetic music, and contagious pop hooks, then it slowly reveals the songs' inherent darkness and Mercer's fears and frustrations. From his difficult position he has the best chance of writing impossibly sunny melodies, which sound in this context like a wish for something better out of life -- a Rushmore, to borrow a motif from one of Murray's movies.
Mercer's position is made all the more difficult by friends who traffic in petty betrayals and lovers who lose interest, and he dutifully tackles them on Chutes Too Narrow, roughing them up a little in the process. "Secretly I want to bury in the yard/The grey remains of a friendship scarred," Mercer sings with bitter resignation on the opening track, "Kissing the Lipless." The subject of "Mine's Not a High Horse" gets a similar kiss-off: "You've got them all on your side/That just leaves more for doubt to slaughter/'I never knew he thought that'/I heard you say falling out of the van Will you remember my reply/When your high horse dies?"
Life's disappointments transcend Mercer's circle of friends, and the album takes a surprising, if fuzzy, political stance. "So Says I," the album's first single, sounds like a protest song, but against what? "Because it made no money/Nobody saved no one's life," he sings (it's too melodious to be called ranting), referring either to the Bush administration's condemnable foreign policy or the RIAA's strong-arm anti-piracy tactics (or something).
All this jaded grousing would be coal in your Christmas stocking if the band didn't seem to be having such a blast. Save for a few down-tempo numbers like "Pink Bullets" and "Those To Come," most of these major-key, three-minute pop songs have resolutely upbeat tempos and a spry spontaneity that twine around the lyrical desolation. The Shins aren't the only band to dress sad thoughts in happy music, but they manage to delineate a very specific space for themselves somewhere between optimism and pessimism, irony and sincerity, maybe even life and death.
But, says Thomson of Murray, "Is there really something in the man that hates to be exposed?" Even when he's at his most confessional, Mercer still seems to be holding back, and the impenetrableness of his lyrics sometimes comes across as a defense mechanism. There are parts of him that hate to be exposed, so he covers them in references to Sir Thomas More and strange, almost surrealist images like "You tested your metal [sic, but intentionally so] of doe's skin and petals/While kissing the lipless who bleed all the sweetness away."
At times, such lyrical opacity lends songs an unexpected emotional weight. A remembrance of a fond childhood friend, "Pink Bullets" recalls the more autobiographical songs from Oh, Inverted World!, such as "One By One, All Day" and "Know Your Onion!" "It seems now a thousand summers passed," he sings, "when our kite lines first crossed/We tied them into knots and to finally fly apart/We had to cut them off." Mercer's dilemma is not whether to share this memory in a song, but whether to remember at all ("I don't look back much as a rule"). It's easier to cut those ties completely rather than continue to fray the knots, but more than any of his peers, Mercer realizes the benefits of sweet, fleeting nostalgia: "Your memory is here and I'd like it to stay/Warm light on a winter day."
The past can never be recovered, and that puts us all in a difficult position.