Wincing the Night Away
What's different? More specifically, what did the flagship indie pop band of this decade lose or gain by waiting almost four years in between releases? The crest of the Shins' popularity was arguably the prominent use of their songs in the hit 2004 film Garden State. A sensible band would've put something out soon after either to capitalize on their newfound recognition or to quickly and decisively steer their music away from any association with idiot-savant/idiot Zach Braff, or — if they're particularly devious — both. Thankfully, the Shins' newest album, Wincing the Night Away, is good enough — great enough, in fact — to make their intentions irrelevent.
Given the gestation time of the album, it is curious that only one track on the album, the lead single "Phantom Limb," gives the impression of being written with deliberation. At the outset, the song's slow-dance melody is almost too elaborate for its own good. The song takes several listens to gain a foothold in your mind, but when it does ... oh, what a treat. Hopeful yet heartbreaking, "Phantom Limb" is an assurance that the Shins can still hit the sweet spot that gives their vulnerability an irresistible quality.
In fact, the entire album is a catalogue of the Shins' marked improvement since 2003's Chutes Too Narrow. That album suffered at times from thin production that made the songs feel like quaint little drawings on unsuitably large canvasses: they were cute, but all that blank space was distracting. On Wincing the Night Away, though, the Shins have discovered just how well a deeper sonic palette suits their songwriting. The subtle usage of distant keyboards and background vocals act as a welcome stabilizing influence and navigational aid, preventing the Shins' distinctively brisk mood changes from becoming too arresting, and simply letting the listener enjoy the ride.
With sharper production values, the songwriting breathes in its new freedom right from the opening track, "Sleeping Lessons." This is the song that secures this album's status as the Shin's best and finest. A call to arms for independence, "Sleeping Lessons" is imbued with tension from all sides by studio instruments and understated bass notes. The line "as sure as you have eyes/they got no right" sends the song into a full-band surge of electric guitar that is at once joyous and cathartic. One of the standout tracks of the Shins' career, "Sleeping Lessons" is like the rest of the record: flawless and blissful.
So to answer the initial question, the reason for the wait is inconsequential. The Shins may have simply not had the songs needed to make this album a couple years ago, but I accept no excuses. After four years, a pop album can no longer be just okay or average. Within that time, something must've happened to the band, and when that something happens, the listener expects that there must be a change for better or worse. They were guilty of gambling with our affections. However, with Wincing the Night Away, the Shins redeem themselves several times over.