The Shins - Wincing The Night Away

Holly Barnes 04/03/2007

Rating: 4/5

I'm going to do it. I'm going to get it out of the way early on- it'll be a weight off and then we can just forget about it. Or at least pretend we've forgotten. Here goes: Zach Braff. Garden State. Natalie Portman. “This song will change your life”... Now, don't you feel better? It's become impossible to hold a discussion about The Shins, write about them or even listen to them without certain associations cropping up. This has brought them considerable recognition and a wider audience, but has detracted somewhat from the actual music. I suppose you could argue, though, that for any band or artist it's never just about the music. Image is a major part of how we perceive any artist, and The Shins, with their quirky press shots of them playing bingo or standing looking awkward and wide-eyed in swimming trunks and waterwings, are no different. But, for them, these images seem more about expressing their sense of humour- enjoying what they do. It's not a case of style over substance- something which translates into an attitude of making the music they want to make. Newest album Wincing The Night Away is not simply an exercise in repeating previous triumphs, or making something shiny and easily packaged to a mass audience.

This said, it is a more accessible and more immediate album than its predecessors, as shown by catchy lead single Phantom Limb. As with tracks on previous albums Oh, Inverted World! and Chutes Too Narrow, it is the game of listening to the surreal, poetic words that draws you in at first. The line “I still owe you for the hole in the floor, and the ghost in the hole” from Red Rabbits, is currently on rotation in my mind. These songs aren't simply vehicles for James Mercer's idiosyncratic vocals and wonderful lyrics, but they do prove to be the focal point throughout, and he enunciates every single line so not a word is lost. As he says himself in Sealegs: “I'm a victim to the impact of these words”. Instrumental sections abound, but you're never far away from hearing his youthful, yet wise-sounding, voice again.

As for the music itself, it is deceptively varied, although you may be too engrossed in the lyrics at times to notice. Opener Sleeping Lessons starts off all shimmery and swirly until the whole thing kicks off; it is the most driving and insistent music The Shins have committed to tape so far and a fitting start to Wincing The Night Away. Next single, Australia, trundles along with more backing vocals than we're used to and touches of banjo; Sealegs, meanwhile, has funky bass with lilting strings and punctuating flute. Another reason this variety may go unnoticed is that it all fits perfectly with The Shins' songs; nothing is forced or unnatural, even the “woah” backing vocals in Girl Sailor, which appear as a chiming guitar melody roams.

One or two of the tracks here sound a bit too similar to previous material to fully justify their place of this album, but Wincing The Night Away is tremendous. The songs are so carefully crafted, to the point where removing or adding anything would make them seem unbalanced and imperfect. It all flows well as a collection as well, with a mix of upbeat singles and more pensive tracks. Early on, Pam Berry offers a well-placed break between tracks that might seem relentless otherwise; its fuzzed tremolo bass and slightly sinister, mysterious atmosphere contrasts nicely. This is a record that can be played again and again and simply not become monotonous; there is something new to discover in every listen- a new lyric to grasp hold of, a melody that is suddenly more beautiful than you expected. Existing fans of The Shins will not be disappointed, and newcomers should see what they've been missing out on. Wonderful.