James Mercer’s wrestles with insomnia have been widely publicized ever since his band, the Shins, grew popular enough that people became interested in his sleep habits. But it’s not hard to imagine why the fellow has a hard time sleeping. The few times I’ve involuntarily remained awake through the night have all been soundtracked by Mercer’s songs, especially “Caring Is Creepy”, and super especially “Turn a Square”. I can’t even imagine possessing a brain that creates such catchy melodies. I’d be a chronic insomniac too. The runner-up title to the Shins’ highly anticipated third album, eventually called Wincing the Night Away, was Sleeping Lessons, now the name of its opening track. So appropriately, the album has a dusky, nocturnal feel which contrasts with its predecessor’s blazing brightness. Even the punchiest tracks are cast in navy blues and ink blacks. As such, it’s ever-so-slightly less immediately pleasing as 2003’s Chutes Too Narrow and the debut Oh, Inverted World. But the growth in Mercer’s songwriting, and the band’s precision and versatility, are also readily apparent. The year is as young as it’s gonna get, people, and already we have a contender.
The band deliberately took its time with the recording process, again taking a different tack than the hit-and-run sessions for Chutes, and the results are accordingly more layered, texturally complex, with more risks taken, such as the vaguely hip-hop flavored “Sea Legs”, which my girlfriend teasingly calls the band’s “311 song” (she doesn’t mean it, I swear). The increased variety in the band’s sound on Wincing also means that certain sounds don’t seem to stick at first, sticking out like sore thumbs or even middle fingers. But the amount of hooks demands enough listens to ensure that what might not instantly satisfy eventually makes sense. “Sleeping Lessons” is a revelation, opening with a solid minute of just pearly keyboard tones and heavily processed Mercer vocals. Other elements quickly fold themselves in, however, leading to an exhilarating, thunderous climax to kick off the album. It’s also fabulously pissy. “You’re not obliged to swallow anything you despise,” Mercer darkly, and melodically intones, “See those unrepenting buzzards want your life / And they got no right.” Who are the buzzards he’s referring to? Beats me, but when he snarls “Off with their heads”, I’m already weaving the basket for the guillotine.
Wincing also represents Mercer’s attempts to stray beyond the three-chord monte he’d damn near perfected, and the labyrinthine melodies of “Australia” reap the rewards. Still familiar and addictive, the song nevertheless turns the tried and true formula on its ear, coming off slightly like a New Wave dance anthem. The alternate version of album track “Spilt Needles” (available as a b-side to the “Phantom Limb” single) also betrays a deep fascination with ‘80s pop, though the Wincing version mutes the production quirks and slows the tempo considerably. “Girl Sailor” features whoa-oh-ohs more in keeping with synth-pop than prior touchstones the Beach Boys and Buddy Holly — all the result of greater attention paid to atmosphere and mood. Wincing the Night Away is dripping with emotion, easily the most affecting Shins record start-to-finish. Which is not to say affected. The pickle-jar tight craft of the album leaves little room for over- or false emoting. Mercer still lays out the words and melodies with crisp directness containing no self-pity, even on lines like “And still to come / The worst part and you know it / There is a numbness / In your heart and it’s growing.” It’s the listener’s job to ponder the implications.
The first single, “Phantom Limb”, is a narrative of two lesbian teenagers, told from one girl’s point of view, desperate to get out of a stifling and stagnant town that will never approve of, let alone understand them, “This town seems hardly worth our time.” The opening lyrics vividly and humorously portray the town’s favored daughters, “Frozen into coats / White girls of the north / … They are the fabled lambs / A Sunday ham.” Later, the girls are inexorably drawn to classic American rebellion: rock and roll, booze, all that good stuff. Mercer sings with empathy for the girls’ plight, misfits out of step with mainstream culture but undeterred from finding their own way around or over it. On the forlorn closer “A Comet Appears”, Mercer’s the one with a drink in hand and a penchant for self-examination, “One hand on this wily comet / Take a drink just to give me some weight / Some über-man I’d make / I’m barely a vapor.” It’s another night-time ode, cross-pollinating their own “New Slang” with Billy Joel’s “She’s Always a Woman”. The Shins will likely never, mercifully, reach the impossible commercial heights of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” or “The River of Dreams”, but it’s just as well. Will the larger world ever be ready for truly honest, often bracing, downbeat undercurrents in its upbeat pop confections? And then how would anyone ever sleep again?