And on the eighth day, The Shins said, Let there be rock: and there was rock. And then, on the night of the eighth day, the group retreated into Mercer’s basement studio in Portland and winced the night away, pouring forth an album that is decidedly more melancholy than anything we’ve seen from them thus far.
“Wincing the Night Away” is a departure from the tone and sound that made the band so popular after their appearance on the “Garden State” soundtrack (or, you know, on Old Campus). While the band’s leap into rock may be too large to please the die-hard fans, it retains enough of the old pop elements to please a casual listener. Mercer drops his affected, high-pitched voice prevalent on other albums, and takes on topics firmly grounded in something. The title “Wincing the Night Away,” for instance, is both a reference to front man James Mercer’s insomnia, and a play on Sam Cooke’s light-hearted dance song, “Twistin’ the Night Away.”
While “Wincing the Night Away” is not The Shins’ best album, there are indications — such as the stand-out tracks “Phantom Limb” and “Turn On Me” — that they made the right decision in trying to create something new. The attempt at reinvention may lead to great places, even if not on this album. In interviews prior to the album’s release, Mercer made vague statements about their plan to do some “stretching out” (which sounds an awful lot like musician-speak for “screwing around”), and there are hints of multiple bands, including Simon & Garfunkel and The Beatles, circa 1967, in the final product of this musical exercise. The Shins aimed to achieve an epic sound by combining dissimilar (but canonical) influences, with mixed success. But the “stretching out” lacks direction, and “Wincing the Night Away” might have been better served by “stretching forward” instead, picking one influence and striving to do it justice rather than haphazardly sampling several.
But even though The Shins’ sound has not yet gotten to where it’s headed, the third album pit stop is worth a listen. The experimentation on “Wincing the Night Away” is the aural equivalent of someone driving a stick shift for the first time. Despite the enthusiasm with which The Shins approach the album, the slight discomfort in the new setting is apparent. The melodies and Mercer’s voice occasionally get trampled in the melee of false starts: The Shins do not yet have control of their now found louder rock. Drums and bass often come on too strong, their presence even more apparent because of Mercer’s lower-pitched singing. There are occasional bursts of speed, as on the opening track, “Sleeping Lessons,” but they have a Fender bender when they dabble in hip-hop on the track “Sea Legs.” At the end of the day, the listener is left mostly on the street, but with part of the front bumper on the front lawn.
“Wincing the Night Away” holds up well despite the expectations that accompany such a highly-anticipated album. Even though it does not stack up to its predecessors, it offers an element of pleasant surprise, like finding a 20-dollar bill in your pocket.