In the 2004 film Garden State, Natalie Portman’s character declares that the Shins song “New Slang” will “change your life.” Much fun has been made of that daft assertion, and rightfully so. At best, the song’s crystalline distillation of indie ennui will guide you home from another bleak night at the bar, or perhaps to the nearest McDonald’s (6 a.m., one-night-stand walk-of-shame style). Despite the fact that the Shins trade in melancholy indie pop well suited to soundtracking Zach Braff’s bafflingly trite tale of suburban New Jersey malaise, and its ilk, they are in fact a uniquely brilliant band.
Like the band’s Sub Pop debut, Oh, Inverted World, 2003’s Chutes Too Narrow showcased an almost absurd level of pop artistry. Lead Shin James Mercer and company are exceptionally literate music lovers, and one could hear it in every well-placed note and melodic, elliptical turn of phrase on those first two albums. This, in turn, has had the effect of turning even ardent pop-haters into swarming Shins fans (indeed, to the tune of a combined 1 million copies sold to date). Even if you don’t exactly like their jams upon first listen, you have to give it up for the intelligence of their craft. Unlike, say, those of the Decemberists, Shins songs never feel forced or clichéd; they affect no pose and pledge no allegiance to any one era, sound or scene in contemporary music. Rather, they seamlessly intertwine ’60s pop, ’70s country and folk, ’80s new romantic, and late-’90s indie rock to near-symbiotic perfection. It is simply exquisite, inventive songwriting.
But as any band that has experienced the opposite of a sophomore slump can tell you, the third album is tricky business. Inevitably, it is the cliff’s edge at which all involved (including the band, as well as the label and devoted fans alike) come to realize that — if the work is still to be challenging and fun — then everything the band has built its success on must go. To their considerable credit, with Wincing the Night Away, it seems the Shins have taken the leap and done just that.
This is a creepy record, and, in many ways, it is the most adult the Shins have ever sounded. The ingeniously devised, tremolo-heavy guitar work, buoyant bass lines and jangly percussion are again lovingly positioned behind Mercer’s reverb-drenched, Brian Wilson–style vocals and lyrical loop-d-loops. However, something new and entirely different is going on here. Where previous albums offered vague sketches of melancholia, resignation and occasional joy, Wincing the Night Away is more a matter of genuine storytelling and internal debate. Though it may seem far-fetched to say this, Wincing conceptually finds itself visiting territory more closely associated with albums like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon than with the vapor-thin confections currently clouding the indie-pop landscape. This is very much a Who the hell are we and what are we doing here? album, exploring the nature of human experience: life, death, sex, greed, conflict, success, lies, honesty, violence, failure, mental illness, aging and death. No shit.
Recorded in Mercer’s Portland basement studio, the Seattle abode of producer Phil Ek (Built to Spill, Modest Mouse) and in Oregon City with veteran engineer Joe Chiccarelli (Beck, U2), Wincing the Night Away ditches the Beach Boys fanaticism of the band’s earlier work, and instead gives listeners something that one day may sit very comfortably alongside the finest dark, weird pop of XTC, the Smiths and Van Dyke Parks.
Growing older and giving the old dark side a try looks good on ya, boys.
THE SHINS | Wincing the Night Away | Sub Pop