Wincing the Night Away
The third album by the Shins, Wincing the Night Away, sold 118,000 copies in its first week, putting it second place on the Billboard 200. According to Billboard's website, "The Shins had never been higher than No. 86 on the Billboard 200 prior to this week, nor had Sub Pop"—their label—"been higher than No. 79." The band was on Saturday Night Live (a career first) a few days before the album came out, and on the day of its release, the Late Show with David Letterman (a career second). At the top of the show, Letterman's bandleader Paul Shaffer perseverated: "Hottest band. Hottest young band. Hottest band." Their faces are on all the magazines. And as of this writing, Wincing the Night Away is holding strong in the Billboard's top 10.
For Shins diehards, these developments are gratifying. On a cosmic level, a worthy creative force is getting its just due—such a rarity. On another level, pre–Garden State fans, those of us who remember when 2001's Oh, Inverted World was the only Shins album that existed, now get to enjoy the feeling of having been right all along.
There's just one problem. Wincing the Night Away is a minor album. It doesn't deserve all this fuss.
I'm in the minority on this—NME has called this Shins album "their best yet"—and I'll be the first to admit I should be disqualified from any sort of objective judging, given all the personal things I associate with Shins music. I grew up reading books and changing the subject when asked about what music I liked, because the only music I knew was the music my parents listened to. I had no actual friends, and by the time I was 17 years old—obese, acne-massacred, a born-again Christian, and still wetting the bed—my CD collection consisted of original cast recordings of Broadway musicals and the odd Dave Matthews Band disc. (All the guys I had crushes on in high school were in agreement about Dave Matthews Band.) It took years—and moving to Seattle—to learn what independent music was. When I became an intern at Seattle Weekly in 2000, I had never heard of Sub Pop. After I'd joined the staff a year later, the music editor introduced me to this new band called the Shins. (Named, incidentally, after a family in the musical The Music Man. I was in that play three times.) Oh, Inverted World became the first album in my life that I loved and that wasn't embarrassing to admit to people who knew about music. Talking to people who liked the Shins, I learned about the Velvet Underground, Belle & Sebastian, the Flaming Lips, Yo La Tengo, Saint Etienne—all bands I'd never heard of. If you live in Seattle and you like those bands, chances are good you'll be able to make friends. I have never seen the movie Garden State, in which Natalie Portman is said to tell someone that the song "New Slang" on Oh, Inverted World "will change your life," because, well, Oh, Inverted World actually did change my life, and the last thing I need is for Natalie Portman to make me feel like a cliché.
After Garden State, sales of Oh, Inverted World jumped almost 400 percent, according to Rolling Stone, and the band's fan base more than doubled. By the time the movie came out, the Shins had already released a second album, 2003's Chutes Too Narrow, that was so strong and so different from Oh, Inverted World that diehards have been known to waste entire afternoons debating which album is better. The band toured a lot—twice I've seen stadium shows with people improbably crowd surfing to "New Slang"—but they are loved for their albums, not their concerts. Oh, Inverted World has an unbroken energy start to finish—it runs like a clean machine, or the heart of a big bird—whereas Chutes Too Narrow is a jangly jumble of moods. The first is better to listen to in the morning. The second is better to work out to. It's a tossup.
Much like Belle & Sebastian, the Shins are built around the genius of one guy who writes everything, including lyrics. In the miles and miles of magazine articles that have been written about the band, no one ever has much to say about James Mercer's lyrics. They're dark, they're weird, etc. Mercer himself downplays the literary part of his brain, telling interviewers that he wasn't much of a reader as a kid and that his lyrics are secondary when he's writing songs. And, the way that he sings combined with the way the songs are mixed, you can barely tell what he's saying a lot of the time. That's especially true on Oh, Inverted World, where the vocal track seems half-buried under sand. Why would you write lyrics and then make them difficult to decipher? Either because the lyrics are so bad you want to obscure them or, oppositely, to reward the listener who makes a point of figuring out the words (like people who spend their teenage years reading books and memorizing the lyrics to musicals). I only recently noticed that the lyric sheet for Oh, Inverted World looks like a chapbook, line breaks and all; a random check of the poem in the New Yorker currently sitting on my dining-room table confirms that some of these lyrics are better than the poetry in the New Yorker.
The first song on the first album begins: "I think I'll go home and mull this over/before I cram it down my throat./At long last it's crashed, its colossal mass/has broken up into bits in my moat." That's fantastic—the assonance, the alliteration, the layered rhyming, the colloquial combined with the archaic. Here's the middle of "New Slang": "New slang when you notice the stripes, the dirt in your fries./Hope it's right when you die, old and bony./Dawn breaks like a bull through the hall,/never should have called/but my head's to the wall and I'm lonely." Here is the entirety of "The Weird Divide," which has no chorus:
several days a month you made
the mile to my house,
and had me do a stroll with you.
far below a furry moon
our purposes crossed
the weird divide
between our kinds.
the silver leaves of ailing trees
took flight as we passed so long ago
but a short time I know.
it pleases me this memory
has swollen up with age.
even time can do
good things to you.
Considering it's a song, that's a damn good poem.
In describing Wincing the Night Away for the music magazine Filter, Mercer said: "When I think about this one, I think about the writing process. It's something I worked alone on for a long time, so there's this theme of solitude and melancholy blended with the usual Shins melodic pop sensibility. I turned some pretty negative shit in my life into something I find beautiful. And in that way, it's one of the most positive experiences I've ever had." For Mercer worshippers, that sort of statement has got to be compelling—it invites you to scour the album for autobiographical dirt—and it also goes some way toward explaining why Wincing the Night Away feels distant and duller than the previous albums. This album makes Mercer feel good for personal reasons. No one except Mercer and people who know about his personal life have any idea what that means.
It would be dumb to fault Wincing the Night Away for not being Oh, Inverted World or Chutes Too Narrow. The world already contains those albums, and the fact that this one tries new things shows imagination and giving-a-shit. "If bands start to suck because they become too competent, at least I can try to be conscious of that and avoid it," Mercer told Rolling Stone this month. "I think you just have to artistically stay curious." Hats off to that. And, to be fair, there are four or five good songs on Wincing the Night Away, whereas a ton of pop albums get by on two or three. But Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow were awesome straight through. If all three have the same genes, Wincing the Night Away is the frail stepsibling.
The opening notes of the first song, "Sleeping Lessons," come from a keyboard that's—what? Underwater? Then comes Mercer's voice, echoing and slightly fuzzy. The song burbles and builds for a good two and a half minutes. Then it comes to a boil. Or it crests like a wave. It becomes very exciting, and it shoots you into the rest of the album. Before you've realized what's happened, you're swirling around in "Australia," the catchiest song on the album. At this point, it is hard not to think, especially on your first listen: Oh man, this is gonna be awesome. Try not to have this feeling. It's a setup for disappointment.
The following seven songs are more or less a wash; now that I've heard the album dozens of times I skip all these and go to the last two. The weak belly includes the first single, "Phantom Limb," an anemic anthem describing a town that "seems hardly worth the time" (shades of "New Slang") and featuring someone on tambourine (further shades of "New Slang") who's slightly unable to keep with the beat (I've tried to ignore this, but it pisses me off every time). "Sea Legs" isn't bad, actually—guitarist Dave Hernandez has aptly described it: "It's like if Morrissey sang for the Beta Band"—and yet, is it sort of tedious? Sure is long. The rest of the middle of the album is a generic vapor, and the nouns in the lyrics begin to seem worn out (falls, walls, fables, towers, sky). These songs are oddly better the less intently you listen; they're superior background music, as various loudly talking groups of people in my apartment have proven.
But the last two songs? Lean into these. "Girl Sailor" is the soul mate of "Saint Simon" from Chutes Too Narrow—a bright, suspenseful, satisfying melody. And "A Comet Appears" has the slow, subtle thrill of a sunrise. You should hear it. Hell, you should hear the whole album. It's a sturdy, reflective satellite orbiting the planet that is Oh, Inverted World. And it will be the conduit by which new listeners are introduced to that earliest work. After any honest debate among diehards, after all, Oh, Inverted World always emerges victorious. If it seems to you to have weakened over time, you're not listening to it loud enough.