Wincing the Night Away
To be honest, I thought there would be more of a backlash. When it comes to that safe, beige area of the music demographic Venn diagram where NPR listeners overlap with teen drama watchers and people who download songs after hearing them in commercials, the Shins' sector is the most vivid saturation of beige you've ever seen. Want to know how popular they are? The next time you see them in concert—in person or on some sort of MTV2 telecast—scout the crowd for bobbing baseball caps. They're a baseball cap band now! (The fact that I've noticed this is a sure sign of my snobbery, but that doesn't diminish the dudeness of their average audience.) Yet despite the surge in popularity, they've somehow managed to sidestep the reactionary anti-buzz you might expect.
Maybe it's because they don't offer much in the way of teasing fodder. Songwriter James Mercer is gentle in his advice to frustrated, lovelorn boys and girls, but not cloyingly fragile like Sufjan. His lyrics point to a knowledge of formal prose, but they forgo the Decemberists' elaborate costuming. And the band writes comforting indie pop but is arguably less boring than Death Cab. (I'm willing to go to the mat with this one. Bring it on, Seth Cohens of the world.)
In fact, it seems like their biggest flaw is having attracted the attention of an actor who appears on TV each week as a wacky doctor and who, in his best moments, is mildly irritating. It was said actor—not the Shins themselves—who declared them to have musical super powers. You can't fault the band for that one line from that one movie. (Although their recent Saturday Night Live appearance did include a performance of the Queen Amidala-endorsed "New Slang," which appeared on Oh, Inverted World—six years ago. It's a perfectly lovely song, but at what point do you turn your back on the meal ticket and take a chance on something new?)
When the Shins started recording their third album, Wincing the Night Away, they were almost infallibly likeable. Poor guys. It can't be easy being the band that everyone and her mother is suddenly into. That sort of pressure can get a musician thinking that the usual routine is no longer enough. So it wasn't much of a surprise when the record's prerelease discussion centered on some in-studio risk-taking, experiments with instrumentation, and a new way of thinking about the craft. (Cue to cross fingers and prepare for disappointment.)
The first third of the album covers familiar territory. "Sleeping Lessons" opens with a warm, soporific walking bass line, a diversionary tactic that keeps you off-guard before the energetic mid-song eruption. Likewise, the jangly "Australia"—boosted by la-las, the occasional crowd sing-along, and a plucky banjo line—is right at home in the canon of whistle-worthy Shins melodies. Mercer's knack for the bittersweet shines on "Phantom Limb," as he sighs through entire verses but opts for hopeful falsetto on the chorus.
Those daredevil production moves happen a little further along with an obvious departure point called "Sealegs." The track lays a start/stop groove (now there's a new word in the Shins' descriptor lexicon) with clipped acoustic guitar riffs and mechanically metered drums—not exactly the "hip-hop beat" the album's accompanying press release describes; it's more reminiscent of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' "Gold Lion," which itself has a Beckish vibe. But on top of that, they throw some wan, sliding strings and escort the whole thing out with a funky, space-chirping synth. Yeah, that is different. The song's only real partner in weirdness, however, is "Spilt Needles." Warped, artificial violin, toy piano plunk, and the whir of time-shifting guitar reverb wrap a good bon mot about fate—"It's like I'm perched on the handlebars of a blind man's bike"—in an eerie glow.
A side note on Mercer's lyrics: He's dealt with a lot between albums—a breakup, a bout of insomnia, and a home burglary perpetrated by neighboring crackheads. If these incidents are the basis for his new songs, their influence is hard to spot. Like poetry scribbled in a notebook solely for personal consumption, the words are impossible to decipher as a whole. But it's worth catching a fragment here and there, like the brilliantly simple metaphor for relationship advice on "Girl Sailor": "Sail her, don't sink her."
Aside from "Sealegs" and "Spilt Needles," the disc plays it safe with calming, introspective tunes that could have padded the Shins' previous albums. Some tracks include a curtain of strings or keyboards in the background, but nothing out of the ordinary to really perk up the ears. Compared to Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow, Wincing doesn't have as many "can't miss" moments or songs that demand repetition, which is perfect if you want something to listen to while soaking in the tub that won't have you reaching for the "back" button and sloshing water on your iPod. FYI.
What ultimately decides Wincing's long-term success isn't really the placement of faders on a soundboard or a new gizmo brought into the studio, but how it stacks up against its older siblings. It's a really nice album that unfortunately won't get taken off the shelf very often because it sits next to two discs with brighter hooks and recently mythologized mood-altering powers. That's the downside of putting out nothing but solid records. One of them still has to be the worst.