The tipping point usually comes here. Good band, great in some respects, commanding cult following verges on mainstream success. Two albums in the bag, both pretty damn near perfect. Album number three on the horizon. Singer/band genius declares he is looking to explore on the record. Usually this a bye word for “we’re going experimental.”
It’s enough to make even Natalie Portman issue a public apology that reads “I lied! I lied! This band will not change your life!” Seriously though, hearing James Mercer propose such a thought was a worry. Keeping it simple has been the Shins forte. The simple things they did always came out so special.
Thankfully, the doubt proved momentarily. Wincing the Night Away, a reference to Mercer’s insomnia, is frankly stunning, immortal in its fabric of songsmithery. It glides over green fields of the layered exploratory lark he professed while retaining the organics of their sound. For those who noticed the band pre Garden State, watching the Shins has been akin to the growth of a child, with Wincing their graduation into a world which is their’s for the taking.
Sound wise, it leans more towards their first album Oh, Inverted World though the second half echoes the lo-fi Chutes Too Narrow.Collaborating with Phil Ek once again, the ante production wise has been upped with more studio time and Ek’s technical wizardry – he was behind Pretty Girls Make Graves’ richly textured New Romance opus.
The first few songs of power pop wrap around your ears, which prickle with excitement when the synth and xylophone chimes dance with 50s guitar solos and Mercer’s frightful interchange in voice between Morrissey, Brian Wilson and Rivers Cuomo. Indeed Australia and Phantom Limb could be the best songs Morrissey and Wilson never wrote. Correction, possibly the best songs Mercer has written.
Red Rabbits’ dripping effects creates the impression Mercer’s nights up have involved toiling with social commentary. Turn On Me suggests a bitter breakup (“You can fake it for a while, bite your tongue and smile, like every mother does an ugly child”) but perversely drives one of the albums most uplifting melodies. Black Wave falls gently likes flakes of snow, part hymnal and with shades of their debut single New Slang.
So much of this album is revealed after repeated listening: a hidden note change, a cloaked arrangement. It’s much less forthright and immediate than Inverted or Chutes, but it succeeds in spinning a web that draws you in; once caught you just want to lie back and absorb its gentle bounce.
If the night skies and baggy eyes were the catalyst for this album then long may James Mercer suffer.