I blame Natalie Portman.
In 2004’s Garden State, her character thrust headphones upon Zach Braff and insisted that The Shins “will change your life.” That unsolicited product-placement launched the Seattle indie-pop darlings onto the radar of mainstream music listeners. The jump from Pitchfork-approved to Portman-preached meant more sales of their first two albums, Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow, more fans at their concerts and higher expectations for their new CD. More importantly, and more frighteningly, it also meant that the band had a new, hard-to-live-up-to directive: to change lives.
Which is why, I imagine, that The Shins sound so different on their new album, Wincing the Night Away: They’re over-thinking things. It’s been more than three years since their last release, and singer James Mercer has said in interviews that the interval has been spent recording, then tweaking, then polishing and then tweaking some more. He said they wanted to surprise listeners, to not repeat the past.
In theory, that’s all fine, and The Shins have indeed succeeded at doing something different with Wincing the Night Away. To avoid becoming stagnant, they’ve widened their sonic palette with varied instrumentation, vocal effects and song structures. The problem is that their former rollicking, fun, and literate rock n’ roll remains literate but is only kind of fun and not at all rollicking.
It’s all made more heartbreaking by the fact that the album’s first two songs are some of the best things The Shins have ever done.
Opener “Sleeping Lessons” is the only effectively executed change in style on Wincing the Night Away. Muted keyboard loops, understated tambourine and gentle guitar strumming cocoon Mercer’s hushed, aching singing (his voice is treated with the same head-in-a-fish-bowl production as it was on Oh, Inverted World). That alone would have made for a compelling song, but the band ratchets up the drama two minutes in by smacking the listener in the face with a galloping guitar riff over which Mercer cries “Enlist every ounce/of your bright blood/ and off with their heads.” The effect is beautiful and triumphant – the kind of thing that might actually change lives.
“Sleeping Lessons” is followed by “Australia,” a song that both innovates and sums up everything that was once great about The Shins. It’s the only really fun song on the album, with romping interplay between guitar and drums, sparkling banjo, a playful bass line and Mercer throwing out airy “la la la”’s. There’s no chorus in the traditional sense – only a melodic refrain with overdubbed vocals that delivers some great, different lyrics each time: “Faced with the dodo’s conundrum/I felt like I should just fly.”
The rest of the album is nowhere near as inventive or captivating as its first two tracks. The band has grown stylistically throughout, but at the expense of accessibility and quality: Most of the songs on Wincing the Night Away lack the loose-limbed genius of past releases.
The biggest offender, and also the song likely to surprise listeners the most, is “Sea Legs.” More than five minutes long (an eternity on the 40-minutes-or-so album), it opens with a lazy hip-hop beat enmeshed in stop-start guitar strumming. Violins come in, then nimble flutes, and then you half expect Beck to make an appearance. Instead, Mercer croons verse-chorus-verse-chorus, sounding like an 80’s pop balladeer. Then, with more than a minute and a half left in the song, the band makes a boring, pointless exit of electronic squiggles and half-hearted guitar play. The song might sound cool on paper, and it is indeed completely different from anything The Shins have ever done, but the beat is stiff, the song’s basic structure is conventional, and the entire thing just feels bloated.
While none of the other songs reach the self-indulgence of “Sea Legs,” most of them do feature a similar lack of dynamism. The Shins used to make music that was always changing, tumbling from verse to chorus to sub chorus to refrain to guitar solo – all organically, coherently and compellingly. Now, they tend to stick to one rhythm, one instrumental tick and one lyrical conceit (the most memorable thing about “Turn On Me,” for example, is the mantra “You had to know that I was fond of you/ Fond of Y-O-U”). They pile on reverb, effects and different instruments, but the tempo, volume and tone of the songs rarely change.
Of course, I’m judging the entire album against past Shins releases. Viewed objectively, Wincing the Night Away isn’t a bad album – in fact, it’s better than anything in mainstream rock right now. Mercer still crafts indelible melodies and delivers his lyrical wit the grammar and diction of an Amish preacher (“You’re not obliged to swallow anything you despise” he sings on “Sleeping Lessons”). Lead single “Phantom Limb” is serviceable, with guitar fuzz, an R.E.M. vibe and a somewhat compelling bridge of “ooooohs” from Mercer (my problem with the song is its insistent tambourine beat and its uninteresting chorus). “Red Rabbits” manages to get stuck in your head even though its instrumentation is all percussionless sonic trickery.
The album may please the uninitiated — it’s pretty catchy and it also sounds different from most things out there. It also won’t disappoint fans who value James Mercer’s vocals over everything else. But to those who have loved The Shins for being dynamic and unpretentious, it’s a let-down. Despite the band’s effort to change its sound, Wincing the Night Away won’t change your life. I don’t think Natalie would dig it.