On the strength of their debut, Oh, Inverted World, the Shins went from indie rock underdogs to one of the style's most beloved bands, and deservedly so: it sounded fresh and timeless, universal and uniquely personal. In fact, it was so good that it may have raised expectations unfairly for their second album, especially since fans had to wait two and a half years for Chutes Too Narrow. But if the band felt any external pressures while making the album, they must pale in comparison to the emotional pressures Chutes Too Narrow expresses. Restrictions and reversals abound in the Shins' music, from the names of their albums to their short-yet-circular songs and the often contradictory feelings they pack into them. They excel at sounding happy, sad, frustrated, and vulnerable at the same time, and their best songs, whether they're fast or slow, feel like they're bursting with nervous energy. The giddy, almost unearthly bittersweetness that made "Know Yr Onion!" and "New Slang" instant classics isn't immediately evident here; though their previous songs didn't travel obvious paths, Chutes Too Narrow's tracks are even more subtle and roundabout. "I know there is this side of me that wants to grab the yoke from the pilot and fly this whole mess into the sea," James Mercer sings on the winding "Young Pilgrims." Veering off course is a recurring theme on the album, and indeed, Chutes Too Narrow isn't exactly the follow-up to Oh, Inverted World that might have been expected. It's a leaner album -- at just over a half-hour long, there are no interludes or summery atmospheres here. Even the songs that recall Oh, Inverted World, such as the bouncy but brooding "So Says I" and "Mine's Not a High Horse" -- which, with its harmonies and hovering keyboards, is one of the most typically Shins songs on the album -- feel more understated.
Understated doesn't mean underdeveloped, though; Chutes Too Narrow's breezy subtlety is less accessible than the Shins' debut, but that doesn't mean the album lacks great songs. Indeed, it begins with one of the best songs the Shins have written, "Kissing the Lipless." Largely acoustic with an intricate, shifting structure, the song builds up to unpredictable spikes of guitar and an amazing high note, forged out of pain and frustration, from Mercer when he sings "You told us of your new life there." The elaborately lovely, slightly spooky "Saint Simon" sounds like Nilsson backed by the Left Banke. "Turn a Square," meanwhile, is one of Chutes Too Narrow's rockier songs, a tangle of lust and nerves that features the great lyrics "Just a glimpse of an ankle and I/React like it's 1805." Mercer has always been a uniquely witty and affecting songwriter, but the simpler sound of this album really lets his gifts as a lyricist shine through (and also gives Chutes Too Narrow an occasionally singer/songwriterly feel). "You wanna fight for this love/But honey, you cannot wrestle a dove," he sings on "A Call to Apathy," a wonderfully twangy song that recalls both the Everly Brothers and Marshall Crenshaw; on "Pink Bullets" he takes the time to notice "The cool of a temperate breeze/From dark skies to wet grass" and "The scent of your skin and some foreign flowers." These carefully crafted words and melodies keep the listener wanting, and coming back for, more. Initially, Chutes Too Narrow might seem as light and fleeting as dandelion fluff or snow flurries blowing in the wind, but its direction promises even more good things from the Shins.