To be honest, Sleeping Lessons, the first song on their new album Wincing the Night Away, is the first time The Shins have ever really done anything for me. It starts good and gradually gets great, evolving organically into a wall of sound with each instrument allowed its own grand entrance to the party. “Go without till the need seeps in,” enters James Mercer over a retro-futuristic loopy synth melody.
You're listening to the song Phantomb Limb off the album Wincing The Night Away . Use the Galaxy Media Player above and to the right to control the playback.
Right away you notice a newfound atmospheric depth that was rarely present in the Shins of the past. Rhythmic strumming creeps in from one side before establishing itself front and center. Splashes of keyboards can be faintly heard before the drums kick in and drive the point home. It’s as if each Shin wandered their way into the recording studio at the perfect moment to take the song in a slightly different direction on the way to a shared, predetermined, and raucous destination. “Jump from the hook, you’re not obliged to swallow anything you despise,” Mercer offers as the song hits its crescendo. Thanks for the option, but this time I may stick around for at least a couple songs.
The single, Phantom Limb, pleasantly emerges out of the brief and droning Pam Berry. A hum-able melody is accented by clean guitar chords, a steady beat, tambourines, shakers, and harmonies caught somewhere between 60’s surf and 80’s pop, while the lyrics somehow make no sense at all and all the sense in the world at the same time. It’s immediately followed by the pleasurable Sea Legs which finds the band trying a Flaming Lips meets Moby style on for size, and it works. Old record pops and hisses lead into a snaky rhythm and a funky bass groove with acoustic strumming juxtaposed over ambient noise. Mercer delivers his lines with psychedelic laziness that begs for a sing-along.
There’s even a spacey jam, that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Traffic record, which takes up the final minute and a half. It’s a brave experiment, and a welcome one. Both pleasant nuggets reminiscent of gone but not forgotten influential eras in pop music, Girl Sailor is a successful modern take on a fifties rock ballad, while the late sixties laced Turn On Me is primed to get stuck in your head.
Compared to their two previous albums, Wincing The Night Away is a carefully constructed step forward for The Shins as recording artists. Sure the syrupy harmonies and jangly guitars are back, but this time they sound fuller and decidedly more polished with a variety of appreciated embellishments. Mercer’s new batch of lyrics are always intriguing, often abstract, occasionally pretentious, and in a few rare moments, pure genius. It’s a solidly likable album from an increasingly likable band. With Wincing The Night Away, The Shins still haven’t “changed my life” but they’re starting to change my opinion of them.