Undoubtedly one of The Shins’ biggest strengths is their ability to conjure up and offer an overwhelming sense of solace and intimacy, especially within the sharp-edged boundaries of pretentious, skeptical and generally unfeeling indie rock. Maybe there was truth in Natalie Portman’s infamously bold statement, which single-handedly swept them into pop phenomena. After all, the band addressed uncertainty and melancholia with such an amplified empathy that each album couldn’t help but represent a vivid, proverbial comfort for its listeners.
ALBUM: “WINCING THE NIGHT AWAY”
When I first arrived at the University a handful of years ago, I was your typical fresh-faced but painfully naïve freshman from a faraway and fairly small town. The Shins were my soundtrack, my bible, as I was coming to grips with foreign bouts of loneliness and isolation and struggling to adjust to a more independent, “college-y” lifestyle. Plus, I had just fallen in love with that one boy from my German class; so naturally, I needed something to turn to.
The band’s first two albums were in constant rotation, and I would lose myself in singer James Mercer’s delicate, soaring baritone, the cryptically lovelorn verse and the unassuming, charmingly modest lo-fi instrumentation. At that point in my life, it spoke to me, and made perfect sense. In all their endearing hesitance, The Shins probably never assumed they would save my life – or a million other people’s. But they did.
Then, they more or less disappeared behind the occasional concert (where no new material was ever hinted at), and I, like many others I’m sure, slowly and unfortunately lost track of the feeling their music once brought in our most desperate and triumphant moments past.
When “Wincing the Night Away,” the band’s three-year pet project, was finally announced, I wasn’t sure what precisely to think. Perhaps the Shins were sick of “Garden State” backlash and their so-called “sensitive” disposition, and had now grown their hair long and opted to make the new album a tribute to black metal.
However, the result is a sort of unfamiliar familiarity that ends up immensely pleasing. Though Mercer, as the band’s primary songwriter, has the know-how to avoid any career-ending left turns, he still seems content with shedding most of the bouncy power-pop energy that charged through The Shins’ earlier works. On “Wincing the Night Away,” he toys with elegant electronic waves, lush string arrangements and sleepy art-folk. Yet the album never bloats with experimentation, remaining delicate and, for the most part, humble. And despite the occasional indulgences, the gracefully catchy melodies, lithe vocals and poetic lyrics remain unchanged, if not on par with past Shins selections.
Songs like the great opening track “Sleeping Lessons,” which builds from hushed vibraphone arpeggios to free-falling rock, and first single “Phantom Limb,” a fine example of the Shins’ beloved brand of pure, buoyant pop, are both entirely capable of resending all those hearts aflutter.
With the exception of the quirky but insanely gorgeous “Red Rabbits,” however, some of the more noticeable departures on “Wincing the Night Away” don’t fare quite as well. “Sea Legs,” for example, never quite escapes from its icky synthesized drumbeat and lackluster arrangement. Still, the album finishes strong with the dreamy “A Comet Appears,” a well- orchestrated, wholly memorable ballad rich both in instrumentation and in wordplay.
“Wincing the Night Away” feels labored despite it actually being a relatively low-impact affair. Mercer and company seem to have grown more comfortable with their roles as messianic minstrels, and the time and effort put into satisfying themselves alongside others is obvious. Certainly, “Wincing the Night Away” could never be as good in the same unguarded, homemade way The Shins once were, but nearly all of the record is completely lovely, and a welcome return back into wide open arms.
Admittedly, I didn’t expect the Shins and I to pick up where we had left off. I assumed they would have grown too untouchable for their own good. Or maybe, have not grown at all, maintaining that “who, me?” reluctance that could no longer suit listeners who relied on their console. Thankfully, they’ve progressed alongside (me?), and even though I’ve changed considerably as well, I can still enjoy them for who they are now. After enough listens, “Wincing the Night Away” might be poised to change a new set of lives all over again.