Some evolution comes naturally. Other adaptations are forced. For the Portland, Oregon–based indie-pop quartet the Shins, it was a cross-breed of the two that helped grow Wincing the Night Away, the band's third full-length, slated for a January 23 release.
In 2004, the Zach Braff film Garden State prominently and infamously featured the Shins' "New Slang," from 2001's Oh, Inverted World. According to the character played by Natalie Portman, it was a song that would "change your life." To date, the lives of all who have viewed Garden State cannot be vouched for, but singer/guitarist James Mercer—the Shins' sole singer-songwriter—made himself available to discuss any variations in his themes.
"After Garden State I knew there was this expectant audience out there, but instead of this big dark cloud, I looked at it as an opportunity," says Mercer by phone on his return from a Hawaiian retreat. "Knowing there was a receiving audience—in a way it's a pressure to not drop the ball, but mostly it's a privilege.
"I felt there were now more people who might be as interested as I was in... expanding the territory I dwell in," continues Mercer. "In the past, I spent a lot of time being earnest, in a way that almost creeps me out. I wanted to find some ground—a little less indie pop and a little more somber."
This should not be surprising, even to those socially awkward film buffs who had their faith in faith renewed.
"I'm awfully surprised when people think the songs are happy, because when I write it's usually a melancholy feeling I get," reflects Mercer. "But maybe it's the acoustic guitar I start on, or writing at a slower tempo than [the songs] end up being [once fleshed out with the band], so there's an inherent melancholy."
In 2004 (but unrelated to Garden State) Mercer spoke to Nikhil Swaminathan, then with Atlanta alternative weekly Creative Loafing, about being sensitive to his own sound. Swaminathan would depict Mercer as someone bleeding together sonic tinctures partially as a means to offset neuroses and insecurities—not an inaccurate representation.
"To try and keep some privacy I use some metaphors," confirms Mercer. "I tend to use the ocean and boats a lot—it's a great symbol for the apathy and dark side of the universe. It's deep with meaning.
"The way I write and record is all through experimentation. Only recently did I develop any intuition. Before that it was going down dead-end roads for breaks in the problems."
With the 11-track Wincing the Night Away, Mercer combined a more-assured sense of self and outside assistance to capture catharsis, confidence, and the smudged logic of songs cobbled partially through the obsessions and stresses of insomnia (as hinted at in the album's title). Working with producer Joe Chiccarelli, Mercer, keyboardist/guitarist/bassist Marty Crandall, bassist/guitarist Dave Hernandez, and drummer Jesse Sandoval took Mercer's unraveling dynamics, his midtempo progressions, and lyrics that seem increasingly more reflective than reflexive, and filtered them through their irreverent, familial vibe.
Staying with the melodic, though often minor-key, medium, the Shins articulated the weight of vernacular and the freedom of validation while drawing on the traditions of Phil Spector, the Pretenders, My Bloody Valentine, and the Three B's—the Beatles, Beach Boys, and Byrds (though throw in the Kinks and Zombies as further B's under "British Invasion").
The band then placed a cover on its efforts. Conceived by Mercer's brother Robert, the cover to Wincing the Night Away appears, at least to Mercer, as suggestions of diatoms (silica-walled algae). And similar to the way evolution stands in contrast to these psychedelic phytoplanktons, the Shins of today are still shimmery, but more nuanced than the Shins as formed in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
"Albuquerque was a place where someone like me, you could argue, wasn't valid," reflects Mercer. "I think it's difficult to overestimate what an impact Albuquerque has, that understanding that you weren't part of the American music scene. But since then I've realized I'm useful. I'm now in such a vastly different situation, and even when I've struggled, I've enjoyed eventually giving it a beautiful structure."