In the weeks leading up to the release of the Shins’ third full-length, Wincing the Night Away, it’s not hard to imagine herds of music critics sitting around quietly, nervously, sipping on cheap beer, chain-smoking cigarettes — all the while trying to figure out just how the hell they’re supposed to write about this record without mentioning the movie Garden State. Such consternation is understandable, even admirable, actually, as we all secretly and rightfully despise ourselves when we know we’ve taken the easy way out and allowed ourselves to employ the most obvious angle in constructing a piece. But there are the rare occasions when avoiding that angle would be not a great journalistic feat, but an unfortunate oversight and a disservice to our readers. And that’s exactly the case here.
In a scene from the film Garden State, Natalie Portman’s character (Sam) implores Zach Braff’s character (um, Zach Braff?) to borrow her headphones and listen to a band called the Shins, famously telling him — all together now — “they’ll change your life.” So he obliges: places her headphones over his ears, takes in a few measures of ‘New Slang’ from the band’s debut album, Oh, Inverted World, and, I guess, is a new man. Or something. Whatever. The truth is, the scene served no apparent purpose, other than to provide Braff, who wrote, produced, directed and starred in the film, an opportunity to plug one of his favorite bands — an opportunity he’d seize once again just a few months later, using the same fucking song in an episode of Scrubs.
And thanks to these endorsements, the Shins joined the long list of bands that, in their time, effectively, if only temporarily, transformed indie rock from something we listen to into something they listen to. The soundtrack sold millions of copies, presumably to the type of people who previously liked only Coldplay, the Black Eyed Peas, and maybe Snow Patrol.
What’s interesting, though, is that the Shins managed to avoid any of the backlash that’s so common in the indie rock community, where the they had already been enthusiastically supported. Because when it comes down to it, contrary to the implications of the hideously melodramatic Garden State exchange, the Shins were never the kind of band you could fall in love with, the kind of band you’d fight to keep to yourself. In short, they were never the kind of band that could change your life.
Each of their first two records, Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow, is occasionally brilliant. Braff’s selections were admittedly astute: ‘New Slang’ and ‘Caring is Creepy’ both stand as shining evidence that the Shins are capable of taking the best aspects of pop music from every decade it’s existed, and putting them together in a way that doesn’t reek of revivalism. Also noteworthy is that Inverted World was recorded exclusively on frontman James Mercer’s home computer — perhaps the single most revolutionary and influential, yet least discussed, thing about it. Chutes Too Narrow was recorded in a studio, and packed a bit more punch. The same pop exploration was present, but it was boosted by a more realized sense of dynamics, which is to say there were bona fide party hits (‘So Says I’, ‘Turn a Square’), and gentle, mostly acoustic tracks (‘Young Pilgrim’, ‘Pink Bullets’) that succeeded equally.
At the same time, there was always something missing: that vague quality that causes us to flip out high school-style when people outside our silly little club take a liking to something we’ve already claimed. The Shins could make us dance and they could provide perfectly suitable background music for cleaning the house or driving around, but they lacked the ability to engage us emotionally, and it made them seem disappointingly cold and detached.
In a recent Magnet article, Mercer discussed at length his decidedly solitary songwriting process, and when he mentioned some recent failed relationships and the songs they inspired, he said, “I can only handle so many sad-sounding songs. I find myself barely able to write those things. You’re just being too emotional, and I’m uncomfortable with that. A vocal melody that’s too sad gives me the creeps; it’s like you’re getting too personal with me.” Such sentiments would sound weird coming from any songwriter, but even weirder from the leader of a band accused, albeit by a fictional character, of changing lives.
And for the most part, not much has changed on Wincing the Night Away. The pre-release press indicated a monumental stylistic shift, playing up a pronounced reliance upon synths, and even mentioning its “hip-hop” beats, which is exactly as ridiculous and misleading as you think it is. The record gets off to a promising start with ‘Sleeping Lessons’, which boasts precisely the kind of dreamy vocal melody we’ve come to expect from Mercer, accompanied at first only by indecipherable electronic blips and beeps, then by the rest of the band, steadily swelling for two and a half minutes, when it erupts suddenly into a driving, unstoppable groove before slowly fading out again. It’s surprising and interesting and immediately engaging — but it’s also the only time on the record anything like that happens. There is, once again, a handful of undeniable tracks: ‘Australia’ is perfectly whimsical and upbeat, as is the first single, ‘Phantom Limb’, while ‘Sea Legs’ (presumably the one with the “hip-hop” beat, ew) is refreshing, as it marks the band’s most blatant departure from its previous work.
The album is rounded out with a not-terribly-surprising batch of mostly mid-tempo, sufficiently catchy songs that are ultimately held back by Mercer’s unwillingness or inability to escape his own comfort zone. And for better or worse, it won’t be until he manages to overcome this final obstacle that the rest of us will truly get bent out of shape about how we knew them first.