If you went from a humble group of scruffy indie popsters from New Mexico to selling out national tours, selling more than a million records, appearing on national primetime television (that would be Gilmore Girls, not The OC, bitches), and having a cute lass in a film say that your music was life-changing, in a relatively short amount of time, mind you, you might have trouble sleeping as well. It may sound counter-intuitive, but imagine what happens when you get married, buy a house, get a promotion, graduate from college, or inherit an estate—even with that great fortune comes a great deal of stress. When The Shins titled their new full-length Wincing The Night Away, it came from a personal habit that frontman James Mercer developed, worrying through the night over various issues, ranging from expectations toward his creative output to the drug dealers next door.
It’s certainly bound to cause a bit of anxiety when told your music is “life changing.” Chances are, an artist isn’t going to change your life more than once, and certainly not twice in less than five years. That anxiety seems to have seeped into the music on Wincing the Night Away. There’s more hesitation, more restraint, more melancholy. It’s not as if the band were always penning joyously lovesick odes, but on Chutes Too Narrow and Oh, Inverted World, there was a quirky surge of energy that gave their music immediacy. Wincing the Night Away isn’t so immediate. These songs feel more guarded; they’ll open up to you soon enough, but they’re not the type to kiss on a first date.
The difference is clear from the outset. Where “Kissing the Lipless” and “Caring Is Creepy” both hit the listener almost instantly with their melodic power, “Sleeping Lessons,” perhaps another allusion to Mercer’s sleepless nights, tiptoes in on a light and fluttering synth line, remaining minimal until eventually exploding into a much bigger affair. “Australia” and “Phantom Limb,” while more straightforward, don’t have the same impact as the opening track’s climax, treading a mid-tempo path with restrained melodies and subtler hooks. “Red Rabbits,” meanwhile, is lighter than air, a twinkling lullaby that practically evaporates from its own ethereality.
As the album deepens, the compositions become more confident, while lyrically embracing that very anxiousness from which it was inspired. “Sealegs” is the album’s most funky and most epic track, turning from a simple acoustic track to a psychedelic jam of sorts. Mercer sings “I’m a victim to the impact of these words” in one line, yet overcomes his lament: “throw all consequences aside and a cheerless pyre we will set alight.” Not quite the re-election of the King of the Eyesores, but an emotional peak regardless. Similarly, in the stunning, haze-filled “Black Wave,” Mercer chants “looking at the brighter side,” after verses of being on a lonesome sea. It could very well be the bleakest form of optimism, but reassurance in the most dire circumstances is also the most necessary.
The album’s most peak comes with “Split Needles.” It’s another foray into pessimism and uncertainty, but poetically delivered on an intensely building melody, climaxing with woozy synth hooks and post-punk riffs. Mercer finds himself careening, “perched on the handlebars of a blind man’s bike,” and falling into holes within holes. Whether taken on a figurative or a literal level, this is nightmarish stuff. It’s no wonder the guy can’t catch any winks.
Now, maybe it’s just me, but “A Comet Appears” sounds a little like “New Slang,” which isn’t a bad thing, of course. But this one seems almost like a darker cousin to the song, ending with the heartbreaker of a line, “there’s a numbness in your heart, and it’s growing.” Wincing the Night Away is fraught with bummers, broken hearts, self doubt, even a little spite. This isn’t necessarily a new thing for the band. After all, Chutes Too Narrow was more or less a song cycle about a collapsing relationship. This album is more strongly haunted, however, not always with tangible things. There is a brighter side, though. Whether or not the meth lab next door was cleared out remains to be disclosed, but James, if you’re reading, don’t worry—this album is pretty damn good.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.