These days, The Shins are not a band with a strong sense of momentum. These UK and Ireland shows (including appearances at the End Of The Road and Electric Picnic as well as this London gig) are the band’s first in four years and the long teased new album is not due before 2017.
Nevertheless, their audience clearly remains patient and loyal as this relatively intimate show apparently sold out in 10 minutes. Many here seem to know every word of James Mercer’s often verbose songs, and are happy to try circumnavigating their unpredictable, tumbling melodies along with him.
For a band currently including three guitarists, The Shins make a surprisingly thin and wiry sound. The band personnel has of course taken a number of twists and turns as Mercer has made what are in his own words ‘aesthetic choices’. This line-up sometimes seems to lack the brightness and crisp attack of the band’s strongest recordings (highlighted tonight by an emphasis on material from the first three albums). Still, there’s an undoubted drive and energy to proceedings, at least in part provided by a lithe and adaptable rhythm section that contributes groove and forward motion.
Without much in the way of explanation or interaction with the crowd, Mercer immediately signals, through his early song selections, that tonight’s set is largely not going to be about road testing new material. Kissing The Lipless, with its vaunting melody and incisive, chiming guitar chords makes for a deeply satisfying and comforting opener. It is followed with a committed and forceful rendition of Phantom Limb. When the band eventually do opt to unveil a new song, it seems comfortably subsumed within what feels like a ‘greatest hits’ set (even if the band do not have actual chart hits on which to rely).
This is a taut and engaging performance and Mercer delivers his lines with genuine relish, sometimes with a little acerbic reflection. Where this incarnation of the band seem to really hit their stride is in a more groove-oriented segment towards the end of the main set. This also seems to be a neat thread drawing together the various strands of the band’s work, from careering The Rifle’s Spiral from 2012’s Port Of Morrow, to a wiry, angular take on Sealegs (from 2009’s Wincing The Night Away), via the dreamier sound worlds of Caring Is Creepy.
In fact, the main set seems to come to an abrupt end just as it really seems to be picking up steam. Though they have rollicked through thirteen songs in about an hour, this does rather feel overly concise. Fortunately, it is followed by a generous encore, including Mercer running through an unscripted solo moment (Young Pilgrims) before bursting in to New Slang, the song Zach Braff’s movie Garden State promised would “change your life”. Finishing with a rambunctious jaunt through Simple Song (as infectious and memorable as its title suggests), the band leave on something of a euphoric high, seemingly as delighted to be back on stage as the audience is to have them there.