At least 6 months later than planned, weighted with over-the-top anticipation from their larger, post-Garden State fanbase, and in the wake of a poor-quality rip that leaked onto the Internet last fall, the new record from The Shins, Wincing The Night Away, was finally released yesterday. So, does it live up to all the hand-wringing? In large part, you bet it does. While not as immediately and uniformly engaging as either Oh, Inverted World or Chutes Too Narrow, this record is another heaping dose of the winsome, beautiful folk-pop that inspired Natalie Portman's cinematic alter ego to utter that now-famous line.
The difference is that much of this record requires you to work just a bit harder as a listener in order to uncover the many pleasures it has to offer. The production is more dense -- in fact, almost fussed-over in places, which is not surprising given the immense pressure these guys were under to deliver something undeniably awesome -- and some of the songs reveal the full measure of their charms only after several spins. Opening track "Sleeping Lessons," for one, rides a looping keyboard figure and highly distorted James Mercer vocal for over 2 minutes before finally exploding into straight up guitar-pop bliss. There's also the matter of Mercer's lyrics, which are as oblique here as ever, and in places downright impenetrable. (Half the time, I have absolutely no clue what he's singing about.) But when the melodies are as intoxicatingly close-to-perfect as they are on first single "Phantom Limb," "Sea Legs" (which sounds to me like a long-lost Smiths track), "Girl Sailor" (previewed here last week) or -- best of all -- "Australia," and delivered in Mercer's lovely, swooping voice, it hardly seems to matter. With The Shins, it's usually the music that conveys the emotion, while Mercer's lyrics, as one reviewer aptly put it this week, "do a great job saying 'I love you' or 'I miss you' without stooping to actually say either."
It's not their masterpiece, and top-to-bottom it's probably not even quite as wonderful as Chutes Too Narrow, but this is another strong outing from The Shins, containing some of their finest and most interesting work. In other words, well worth the wait.
BONUS: The Shins - "Phantom Limb" (now a free download from Sub Pop)