I actually considered writing this review of the Shins’ new album Wincing the Night Away without mentioning any of the above. After all, I could use the opportunity to show off my music cred and point out that I was a fan of the band before Garden State, before Zach Braff put the band on his soundtrack, before every faux-indie kid was inspired to rush to the record store/the internet and get a copy of Oh Inverted World! (shame that most of them didn’t track down its far superior follow-up). Plus, given that James Mercer’s wonderfully understated indie pop never had any obvious life-changing ambitions before, it’s unlikely that things would change simply because he learned how much Zach Braff *hearts* his work.
But separating music from the context in which it is listened to is folly, based on the false notion that an album exists as an artifact of sound all to itself. The Shins are no longer just a Pitchfork band anymore; they’re perhaps the most prominent little indie-type band in North America (believe me, I know – my post about lamenting the leak of this album in the Fall is one of the top-viewed post on this blog, found by hundreds of people Googling for “SHINS LEAK”). Plus, any band spending 3+ years putting together a highly-anticipated album opens them up to all sorts of knee-jerk reactions about how they were struggling to meet expectations.
So with all of these thoughts swirling in our skulls, let’s call Wincing the Night Away out for what it is: a worthy addition to the Shins catalogue, a further validation of the brilliance of James Mercer’s songwriting, but also a transitional album that reveals hesitated steps towards taking the band’s sounds in new directions.
Before I get to my criticisms, let’s get the positives out of the way, because by and large Wincing is a fantastic album. The work that singer/songwriter James Mercer has put together here demonstrates that when it comes to melody, few contemporaries can match him. Sure, he’s clearly a Brian Wilson aficionado, but hey, if you’ve got aspirations in pop music you can do far worse. The album continues with the rich, crisp production that made 2003’s Chutes Too Narrow far preferable to the band’s debut album, and it’s as good in headphones as it is coming from a stereo. If you’re already a Shins fan, there’s much here to love, and if you’re new to the band there’s plenty worth discovering.
But I use the term “transitional” because the album tracks can be slotted into three different categories: songs that branch out into new sonic directions and are rewarding, songs that try to branch out but fail to connect, and songs that are content to stick with the formula that Chutes defined. At their best, these new sonic directions are revelatory. Opening track “Sleeping Lessons,” with a background synth progression leading into a full-on rock song, is a worthy candidate for the band’s best song to date. Rivaling it is “Red Rabbits,” a keyboard-driven song that stays intimate and stunning from start to finish.
But then you hit a track or two like “Sea Legs,” an attempt to add an electronic drum beat to a repetitive guitar hook that feels more like a b-side than an album track. More troublesome are those songs that sound like they could have been on Chutes Too Narrow and we’d be none the wiser, like “Girl Sailor” or “Turn on Me.” There’s little to fault here in terms of melody or craft, but they distinctly feel like something we’ve heard before and don’t stand out enough on their own to warrant such repetition.
Most frustrating of all is how Wincing duplicates the sequencing and flow of Chutes Too Narrow almost song-for-song. Both feature the same opening trio (if we ignore the 55-second interlude track on Wincing): slow song that gains a rock edge, an upbeat pop song and then the album’s first single. Both albums place their melodic centerpieces in the middle of the album, and both close with an straightforward pop ballad followed by a simple, haunting acoustic song at the end. This repetition of structure prevents Wincing from having its own identity, and only serves to remind me of how much more consistent Chutes was as an album.
I generally hate it when music reviewers try and psychoanalyze the musicians based on what’s on the record. Listening to Wincing the Night Away, the temptation is to declare it a case of the band struggling to deal with its newfound fame, producing an album that both tries to branch out their sound and yet still feature a number of songs that sound like their old stuff. I think it’s misleading of reviewers to presume any artist’s motivations, but sonically those concerns are valid. I hope that Wincing does extremely well for the band, not only because it’s a good album well-worth a listen, but because I hope that the chances that Mercer and co. do take on the album are rewarded, and that someday the band will take thedive and give us their life-changing indie-pop masterpiece.
Watch: The Shins – “Phantom Limb”