On their first two albums, the Shins practiced a lyrical obtuseness at odds with their immediately catchy songs. Head Shin James Mercer's long and winding lines traded in constantly shifting oddball imagery, but there was always the sense that he was talking about something specific -- an impression reinforced by the band's short, punchy indie-pop songs, whose melodies and structures were as targeted as their words seemed aimless.
On the band's third album, Wincing the Night Away -- their first since the movie Garden State proclaimed them a life-changing band -- there's hardly anything you could properly call a chorus. Barely any bridges, either. Mercer seems to have made a conscious decision to avoid the verse-chorus-verse format that informed the tightly wound pop compositions of the band's second album, Chutes Too Narrow.
Wincing is their loosest batch of songs yet. Melodic themes repeat unexpectedly with different lyrics and inflections, and the opener, "Sleeping Lessons," and first single, "Phantom Limb," build linearly and carefully but fly off in wild directions. Not everything is immediately accessible, and the band's goals are never obvious. For the first time ever, the Shins sound as obscure musically as lyrically.
Not every experiment on Wincing yields uniformly excellent results. But these new directions produce some gems that, truth be told, the band couldn't have written previously. "Sleeping Lessons" starts with a burbling keyboard line and a halting vocal melody but builds to the kind of driving rock momentum that the Shins have never attempted before. Best of all is "Turn on Me," which features one of Mercer's bounciest melodies and the band's most energetic performance.
You'd have to talk to Mercer personally to determine whether this sense of experimentation is a direct response to the Shins' post-Garden State reputation. Lyrically, he addresses the mighty expectations greeting Wincing in his typically oblique style, wryly delivering stinging lyrics like, "Just put yourself in my new shoes/And see that I do what I do/Because the old guard still offend/We got nothing left on which we depend." But that could mean anything on this challenging album. -- Stephen Deusner