A distant and loopy keyboard melody introduces the listener to what will become 41 minutes of the strange but vaguely familiar.
This is the third album by the Shins entitled “Wincing the Night Away.” The album is reminiscent of the Shins’ previous works, but comes across as a more mature and mysterious musical compilation.
Throughout their careers, the Shins have managed to bridge the gap between the indie and popular music scenes. Their formula has been one of simplicity, centering on simple chord progressions and catchy vocal melodies. They have balanced themselves between the low budget, under-produced sound of indie rock, and the well-refined air of the more popular musical styles, creating a listenable, but not over-produced nature to their music. “Wincing” destroys this balance, taking the Shins to a more mature and polished level of musicianship without sacrificing style or originality.
Released on Jan. 23, “Wincing” offers the listener a level of complexity previously unheard in the Shins’ earlier works. While the individual elements of each song still retain the catchy simplicity characteristic of the Shins, the compilation of all parts as a whole creates a lush world of refined sound.
This is most evident in the placement of drums in the musical mix. Historically, the Shins have kept their rhythm section mixed low, acting as a simple backbeat to compliment the rest of the instruments. “Wincing” places the drums in a focal role to the extent that most of the songs could not survive at all without them. “Sea Legs,” track six, is driven by the choppy backbeat of the drums, leaving the rest of the instruments in a complimentary role. Combined with the equally refined bass lines, the polished drum sound fills in the lower decibel end of “Wincing” in an effort to offer the listener a full and complete aural experience.
The guitar work of “Wincing” ventures into more complex and technical arrangement, but still serves as the main focal instrument of each song. This is notable especially in “Split Needles,” which focuses less on strummed chords, and more on individually picked notes that continue to reverberate even after the melody has changed.
However, more so than any previous work by the Shins, the album also relies heavily on a background layer of ethereal keyboards and arbitrary sound effects. These are crucial elements in the creation of the darker, more mysterious work that is “Wincing.” Coupled with front man James Mercer’s cryptic lyrics, songs such as “Black Wave” rely on the eerie whispers of keyboard melodies to complete the almost melancholy and detached nature they wish to convey. Sound effects such as the ghostly sighs of breath over the mouth of a bottle or the gentle chirp of birds, though not necessarily music by themselves, help to fill more elaborately the world created by the songs.
The elaborate world created by the music is put into words with Mercer’s lyrics, which maintain their solidity as fine examples of lyrical poetry. Although it is not always clear what his message is in a particular song, it seems as though he is always able to discover the most intricate manner in which to convey that message. The highly descriptive “Phantom Limb,” the album’s single, showcases Mercer’s lyrical talent, but does not immediately reveal the meaning of the song. It leaves the listener to decipher meaning while at the same time contemplating the complexity of the music.
Mercer’s voice also plays into the polished nature of the album’s lyrical aspects. The sound quality of the vocal recording, as well as Mercer’s ability to reach higher ranges of the vocal tonal level with beautiful ease add the listener’s sense that the music being listened to was polished to perfection by extremely talented people.
“Wincing the Night Away” is both a work of art as a whole, and also a collection of smaller masterpieces. Each song is handled with delicate care, and each compliments the others in an effort to produce a very cohesive album. The particular attention paid to each and every aspect of the album allows the listener to focus on one element specifically, or take in the whole of the music at once. Upon completion of any one of the songs, the listener is left to contemplate the departure from a simplicity that could once describe the Shins.
Yet, despite all the new directions it takes, “Wincing” is undeniably a work of the Shins. Though darker in nature, the album still embraces the generally upbeat and catchy nature of previous albums. “Australia” reminds the listener of “So Says I” off of “Chutes Too Narrow.” The final song on “Wincing,” “A Comet Appears” brings forth memories of the Shins’ most well known song, “New Slang,” which appears on “Oh, Inverted World.” The Shins’ new direction does not abandon that which drew fans to them in the first place. It is merely an elaboration.
Yes, the Shins are still themselves, but “Wincing” seems to mark a turn to a more mature and refined direction in music making.
Contact Campus Press Staff Writer Jon Swihart at Jon.Swihart@thecampuspress.com