With an adoring fanbase eagerly awaiting The Shins' third
full-length album, last year's Wincing The Night Away,
the much-celebrated indie superstars found themselves at a crossroads.
Their debut, Oh, Inverted World, was a spectacularly innovative
record, evidence that true originality still exists in a rock
world rife with clichés. The band's follow-up, Chutes
Too Narrow, remains their masterpiece. Bandleader James
Mercer wrote a concise, ten-song opus brimming with complex
melodies and ingenious lyrics, held together by his effortless,
emotive tenor and tour de force performances by his bandmates.
When it came time to record a third album, then, the already-legendary
band had a choice: attempt to shock the world for a third time
- which history has proven nearly impossible - or make a record
that builds on the legacy of its previous work. With Wincing
The Night Away the band wisely takes the latter path. And,
while it may be tempting to write it off as a less-inspired reworking
of Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow, it
would be a shame to dismiss what is the band's third consecutive
triumph. Wincing The Night Away, song-for-song, trumps
the debut and falls just short of matching the near-perfect Chutes
Too Narrow. While the homespun warmth of those two records
has been replaced with a more meticulous, polished product, the
band has added new dimensions to its sound with the use of unusual
instruments, precise arrangements, and sonic details that reveal
themselves on repeated plays.
As always, The Shins' music revolves around Mercer. His crystal-clear,
ethereal voice can be sorrowful, defiant, or carefree, and he
manages to guide his songs in different emotional directions without
any obvious change in his approach. As a songwriter, his melodies
seem to veer in haphazard directions, but always resolve themselves
perfectly - his songs combine the effortless, winding melodies
of They Might Be Giants' John Linnell with the emotional
immediacy and unconventional structure of The Smiths' records.
Mercer also sets himself apart with superb lyrics that are even
more engaging on the page than on record. He blends his words
so seamlessly with their melodies that the depth and complexity
of his poetry are easy to overlook. On "Red Rabbits,"
he offers some of his best: "The trees in the moonshine are
a dark lattice / so you catalogue every angle you notice. / In
a vacuum, you are charged to record this / so you won't make it
easy on me."
It's not only Mercer that impresses on Wincing The Night Away,
though. His band delivers subtle, precise performances that transform
a collection of inspired songs into something truly remarkable.
When The Shins are at the height of their powers, it's truly a
spectacle. Lead single "Phantom Limb," with a pulsing
drumbeat and warm arrangement backing one of Mercer's all-time
great melodies, approaches the beauty of the best song in the
band's catalog, the breathtaking "New Slang" from Oh,
Inverted World. The opening track, "Sleeping Lessons,"
begins with dreamlike synthesizers and builds to a triumphant
climax, and also boasts some of Mercer's most skillful lyrics.
"Australia" is a textbook Shins song, anchored by another
first-rate melody and a propulsive performance from the band.
The tongue-in-cheek "Turn On Me" is one of Mercer's
best pop songs. The band also shines on the jittery "Sea
Legs" and the otherworldly "A Comet Appears."
When it comes down to it, the music world needs The Shins, and
to hear them respond so masterfully to the praise lavished on
their first two records is a good indication that the band will
be making records as impressive as Wincing The Night Away
for a long time. Listeners should still pick up the band's first
two records before moving to this one, but it remains an early
contender for album of the year.
1. Sleeping Lessons
3. Pam Berry
4. Phantom Limb
5. Sea Legs
6. Red Rabbits
7. Turn On Me
8. Black Wave
9. Spilt Needles
10. Girl Sailor
11. A Comet Appears
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