By Chris BoutetWhen a promotional copy of the Shins’ long-awaited album Wincing The Night Away was leaked last October, music blog What Would Jesus Blog? proposed a "Shins Album Review Drinking Game” in a bid to expose the clichés that would inevitably surface. Does the review refer to the Shins as "indie darlings” or "giants,” he writes? Chug a beer. Does it mention some embarrassment for liking the album? Chug another. Does it mention Natalie Portman, Zach Braff, the 2004 movie Garden State or the now three-albums-old song "New Slang”? Well, you might want to pick up a case.
The point is clear: beneath all the anticipation for the Portland-based group’s third full-length — and first since Natalie Portman (drink!) introduced their music to Garden State (drink!) audiences with the proclamation that "New Slang” (drink!) would change our lives — was a backlash waiting to happen.
But if these looming expectations were apparent when Shins front-man James Mercer began work on Wincing two years ago, he didn’t feel them. But then again, he had a lot on his mind.
"It never occurred to me when I started writing this album that, ‘Oh man, people expect me to change their lives now,’” Mercer says with a laugh. "This was a period of high stress for me. My life sort of blew up for a while there. After [2003’s Chutes Too Narrow] came out, we started touring really heavily and I was in a relationship that was falling apart. I also had crack dealers living next door … so all of these things sort of added together to make me one messed-up motherfucker.”
The result is a dramatic and haunting effort that reflects this difficult time in Mercer’s life and represents a significant step forward for the band. The album’s title makes reference to the "crippling insomnia” Mercer developed during the recording process, and this agonizing experience informs a great deal of Wincing’s subject matter and tone.
"I have always been a light sleeper, but add onto that these seriously stressful things I was going through and I was going for four nights without sleep and just kind of constantly walking around in a zombie mode while this record was being written,” he explains. "Insomnia puts you in this strange state of mind. It separates you from the rest of the world. It’s probably what drug addicts feel. It’s like trying to be normal but you’re barely hanging on.”
The strange, detached state emerges in the first track, "Sleeping Lessons,” in which Mercer’s filtered vocals float dreamlike over a cascade of muffled synth arpeggios that briefly gives way to a chorus of feverishly strummed guitars before slipping back into nothingness. The album that follows continues to wade into similarly unexpected territory. While the effortlessly catchy three-chord pop that defined 2001’s Oh Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow is preserved on classic Shins tracks such as "Turn On Me” and lead single "Phantom Limb,” rarely does a song surface that is not awash in a sea of hazy electronic filters and warm vocal overlays that obscure and mystify as Mercer’s brassy wail searches for clarity.
While perhaps not as hook-filled or instantly gratifying as its predecessors, Wincing is a bold album that demands attention, and Mercer feels it will reward those fans who stick with it through repeated listens.
"I’m most proud of this album, and I think there are some songs that may require a little more attention than some of our other work,” he says. "I’ve heard people say they had to listen to it a couple times, and I felt that when we were recording it. You know, this is really solid shit, and I hope that people really open up and listen to it.”