For pickup lines it beats astrology, but could the Shins really change someone’s life? A tall order, but the elegant pop revisionism of the Northwestern band’s first two records made them more worthy of the claim than other newcomers in the post–Elliott Smith drought. 2003’s Chutes Too Narrow was a great record because the smarty-pants one-liners and aching countermelodies never sounded like intellectual calisthenics; after enough time, every other haircut band on the MFA candidate’s iPod—from Destroyer to the Decemberists—sounded like thesaurus-driven poseurs by comparison. “But branded as life-changers since pouring out of Natalie Portman’s earmuffs in Garden State, should it come as a surprise that the Shins show signs of performance anxiety on their third LP?”
Shins singer-songwriter James Mercer seems to have retreated from the dazzling spotlight into the Moog-lit glow of his basement, content to twiddle knobs and tiptoe around the unanimous declarations of his band’s genius. But the skittish nature of Wincing the Night Away plays out in the opener, “Sleeping Lessons,” which emerges from a fog of synthesizers by layering one careful instrument at a time. And while Mercer’s writing is still more satisfying than that of his peers, filler tunes like “Pam Berry” and “Black Wave” are a far cry from the tenacious stuff that made Chutes the subject of lavish hyperbole. There are some captivating sonics—like the mellotron orchestra on “Spilt Needles” or the borrowed hip-hop beat of “Sea Legs”—but when Wincing musters up enough courage to drop the 808 and ’80s affectation for a simple backbeat (on three tunes total: “Australia,” “Turn On Me,” and the catchy single “Phantom Limb”) the results tend to sound like Chutes also-rans.
Maybe a hint to the problem lies between the choruses of “Australia,” wherein Mercer sings of a girl who first faces “the dodo’s conundrum” and later “the android’s conundrum.” The poor lass might represent the dilemma of the Shins themselves, unsure of what to do now or even what they are anymore. saddled with such a treasured past that their future, no matter how pleasant, will seem unremarkable by comparison, though perfect for the next poignant moment in Garden State II or a Grey’s Anatomy episode. Thanks a lot, Natalie.