...If Mercer could just control his penchant for the obscure, The Shins would...
Richard Banks 2007
When Natalie Portman declared 'you gotta hear this song, it’ll change your life' in Zach Braff’s Garden State (2004), nobody’s lives changed more than The Shins’. Before Hollywood cottoned on, the Albuquerque four-piece were idling along quite nicely as cult indie hopefuls with their debut Oh, Inverted World (2001) and solid follow-up Chutes Too Narrow (2003). The world’s been waiting expectantly ever since.
The trouble is, delivering a life-altering third album to satisfy both the mainstream Johnny-come-latelys and the shoe-gazing devotees isn’t the easiest of tasks. Little wonder, then, that it’s taken so long.
There’s a fine line between poetic and puzzling, and frontman James Mercer’s impenetrable lyrics see him tripping over it all too often. Faced with mystifying lines like ‘out of a gunnysack fall red rabbits, into the crucible to be rendered an emulsion’, it’s difficult to form the kind of emotional attachment to Wincing The Night Away that so many did with The Shins’ previous efforts. As is often the case with Mercer’s writing, there’s barely a chorus in sight, which makes this a jilting listen at first.
Eventually, though, familiarality comes with the recognition of surprising chord changes, insistent melodies and unexpected shifts in direction (see opener “Sleeping Lessons”). When they get it right, the results are superb. Distilling the essence of Belle and Sebastian and Death Cab For Cutie into one, the band hit upon a truly invigorating blend of power-pop on “Phantom Limb” and “Australia”.
Sadly, Joe Chiccarelli’s production is hit and miss. In places, the album’s over-polished veneer only serves to make it even less accessible. Elsewhere he conjures some remarkable sounds, nowhere more so than on “Red Rabbits”, where the keys splash and echo like drips in a watery cave.
Taken as a whole, Wincing The Night Away is not a welcoming record; with the exception of two or three songs, it’s cold, uninviting and awkward. But, if Mercer could just control his penchant for the obscure, The Shins would undoubtedly be a band to treasure.