The Shins are a band that started their career fairly innocuously. Their debut album certainly caught the ear of a lot of people with its 60s inspired melodic sensibilities and songwriting, but through a series of events following that, they truly blew up into something beyond what probably anyone expected. After releasing their insanely-catchy second album Chutes Too Narrow, the group were featured prominently not only musically, but as a small part of the plot (including a character played by Natalie Portman speaking the line, "the Shins will change your life.") in the surprise hit Garden State. Along the way, the group toured the world and has to date sold over a million copies of their first two releases combined.
After that runaway success, it's understandable that they might have wanted to take a little bit of a breather. Arriving almost three and a half years after their last album, Wincing The Night Away is the groups follow-up statement, and it will certainly confuse at least a good portion of fans of their previous work. It's definitely still a Shins album, as singer James Mercer holds every track together with his unique voice, but this is by far the most obscured album they've done. It's as if the group wrote their normal songs, then switched out the guitars in places for synths and other instrumentation, while willfully trying to mislead listeners in places.
In places, the completely new palette of sounds does wonders for the group's sound, resulting in some of their most dizzying work to date. The first half of album opener of "Sleeping Lessons" is all quiet guitar strums and a repeating electronic melody that lulls you into a false sense of wonder before the group bursts forth and blows out the second half with soaring vocals, crashing drums and loud layers of guitars. "Split Needles" is closer to what you'd expect from the group, but again they take a slightly more aggressive route while layers of glitchy orchestral synth sounds build some great tension in places.
In other places, this new experimentation just doesn't work quite as well. "Sea Legs" shuffles along with sort of a hip-hop beat and some acoustic guitar strums and light synths. Despite the nice vocal work from Mercer, the long track simply sounds like a reach, with chord changes that muster little surprise. Meanwhile, both "Red Rabbits" and "Black Wave" find the group stripping back to ambient washes, guitars, and vocals. With some watery percussive elements and an overly cheeky feel, the latter just doesn't seem to go much of anywhere, while the latter builds some tension with a bit of a feedback squall at the end but likewise saps album energy.
There's still a handfull of rollicking pop tracks (like "Australia," "Turn On Me," and "Girl Sailor") that the group can seemingly write in their sleep at this point, but in large point Wincing The Night Away as a whole is both inconsistent and even odd in sequencing. In other words, it sounds more like a group clearing their heads and trying to decide which direction to go in next rather than a solid and certain next step. After all their recent success, perhaps they're just trying to separate their true fans from those who latched on after being lured in by a quirky movie character. If that's the case, the group will likely get their wish, as this newest release still has plenty of great moments, but they're not as immediately obvious as in the past.