Over the course of two previous albums, 2001's Oh, Inverted World and 2003's highly acclaimed Chutes Too Narrow, the Portland, Oregon-based indie combo the Shins have developed a growing reputation for their distinctive, uncategorisable pop. With Wincing The Night Away, they finally burst into the mainstream with one of the early contenders for album of the year, comprising 11 songs that immediately take up residence in one's heart, without jettisoning any of the enigmatic magic that made those earlier releases such cult favourites.
As "Australia" and "Split Needles" demonstrate, singer/guitarist James Mercer has a knack for writing songs that seem to be about one thing but, via curious twists and turns, usually wind up being about something else. In some cases, it's ultimately hard to tell exactly where the lyrical peregrinations have led the songs, which lends them a mystery that only adds to their appeal. As Mercer sings in the latter track: "Oh won't you do me the favour, man/Of forgiving my polymorphing opinion here/And your vague outline". Sometimes, so polymorphous are his songs that only the vaguest outline is discernible, the listener left awash in a sea of semantic possibility. It's a characteristic the Shins share with peers such as Midlake, as too is their penchant for melodies that favour similarly unusual, circuitous routes.
Which is not to say they shun the appeal of pop, merely that they arrive at that appeal from unexpected directions. One moment they can be as innocently engaging as on "Phantom Limb", the kind of sensitive song that Carl Wilson would be given to sing lead on for the Beach Boys; the next, they're creating a twitchy undertow of jerky, jazzy rhythm on "Sea Legs". Elsewhere, there are hints of more pastoral Pink Floyd in the folk-tronic shimmer of "Black Wave", and echoes of "Then He Kissed Me" in "Turn On Me", while the polite 1960s pop tone of "Girl Sailor" suggests the kind of thing that an uncool band such as Herman's Hermits might take on to demonstrate that they could handle more mature arrangements and melodies. But if that makes the Shins sound too mannered and cerebral, it's certainly not at the expense of soulfulness: a track such as "Turn On Me" manages to be verbally intricate, but somehow comes across like an emotional blurt, hitting the heart just as hard as the head.
Musically, Wincing The Night Away captures the Shins at their most varied and inventive yet. This banquet of diverse flavours leaves you wanting to guzzle the whole lot over again.
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