Wincing the Night Away
et’s just get it out of the way: The Shins may have helped bridge the gap between shy indie boys and mildly adventurous sorority girls, but you probably didn’t leave your first experience with them an altered beast unless it led directly to you getting laid. Or you are Zach Braff. Different names for the same thing, so said Death Cab.
It’s been very weird since then. The erstwhile members of Flake Music made endlessly listenable half-hours of mixtape darts, but in terms of indie bands readily available at Best Buy that I’d first describe as “life-changing,” the Shins probably rank a little outside the Power 16 and somewhere in the pack of “other receiving votes” between New Pornographers and the Clientele. Even the band itself seemed wearied by unfounded expectations: the crowds would get larger but the sound didn’t, leaving them mousy and underwhelming in the spotlight. Seeing the Shins headline a show made you feel as if they’ve already maxed out their sustainable fanbase.
Wincing the Night Away takes steps to rectify that, but the more important thing is that for the second straight LP, the Shins faced immeasurable odds and somehow managed to set the bar even higher for next time. It’s likely that 2007 will be spent foraging for bolder and newer sounds, but Wincing the Night Away, like the two albums before it, will remain a great zero scale where you take your eyes off your laptop screen and remember that finding your favorite records isn’t supposed to be homework.
It’s crystal clear from the earth-toned cover that the Fruit Striped zip of Chutes Too Narrow has given way to a richer, more “mature” Shins. Maturity, though, becomes a bit of a bait and switch, as the most obvious instrumental tweaks turn out to be the least jarring or important. On first listen, it may sound like the glassy, opaque synths and brittle drums of “Sea Legs” are the result of artistic restlessness or even being cornered into hip-hop toe-dipping, but subsequent listens reveal how surprisingly natural the expansiveness of its outro becomes. The brackish psychedelics of “Black Wave” is really Oh, Inverted World‘s head in a darker, post-war cloud, as is the prickly “Split Needles,” which exposes the core of bitterness that sometimes lays under the surface of their simplest work (see the suicidal tendencies in “Young Pilgrims”).
What really makes Wincing the Night Away succeed is how the Shins’ moneymaker templates evolve into more complex tapestries. In a manner similar to the New Pornos, the third album becomes the most successful due to an implied heft that comes from a concerted effort to sound like a band rather than a singer-songwriter vehicle. “Saint Simon” may have been jaw-droppingly complex in melodic structure, but it still sounded…cute. The stately and plaintive “Phantom Limb” and “Turn on Me” aren’t heavy, they’re just big-boned. Call the booming drums and upward spiral chorus “tasteful” ways to push them towards full-bodied “rock” if you will, but none of this sonic trickery would matter if James Mercer didn’t remain a songwriter seemingly incapable of penning a bum tune.
The title of closer “A Comet Appears” might be read as an in-joke about how the Shins have basically made ten minutes of new music per year since Chutes Too Narrow, but it’s not like we were getting restless for a “statement.” The Shins don’t do that kind of thing…yet. But why get in a huff because they broke onto the scene with a style that couldn’t possibly be called revolutionary and spent their first three albums nudging its boundaries when they still have room to grow? And so what if the songs make you fight for your own meaning when you can play them again and again without wearing out their welcome? It’s not like we haven’t seen it before; of all Mercer’s obfuscations, removing the working title of Sleeping Lessons was the most important. Otherwise, it would been too obvious to connect the dots and realize that twenty years ago, this was probably how people talked about R.E.M.