Girl: A simple, monosyllabic, four-letter word that has long served as a lyrical cornerstone of popular songwriting. Thousands of songs have explored the infinite complexity of the boy-girl relationship, using the g-word as a euphemism for the heartbreaking femme fatale (“Girl” by the Beatles) or as a means of naming the ideal woman (“Life’s a Gas” by T. Rex). James Mercer of The Shins has an endearing way of singing the word – often varying his delivery to include trills and his own idiosyncratic falsetto.

The most disarming part of Mercer’s sung “girl” is the lyrical complexity that often surrounds it. His use of the word grounds his abstract character portraits and surreal confessionals in reality.

Upon first listen, it’s easy to mistake the opening lyric for a signature piece of Mercer’s diction, but listen closely and you’ll observe a slightly altered version of the “reliable” Shins sound: “Go, without / till the need seeps in / You’re low anymore / Collect your novel petals for the stem / and glow, glow / melt and flow / Eviscerate your fragile frame / and spill it out in the ragged floor / a thousand different versions of yourself.” These are the words of a man growing restless in his artistic skin, seeking to “eviscerate his frame” and shed his past identities.

Though the lyrics may seem outwardly brave, they are by no means a credo for the album’s tone, and Wincing the Night Away is transparently hesitant to abandon the pop formulas that have endeared The Shins to so many people – and understandably so. James Mercer is one of the most talented tunesmiths in modern pop music, and rejecting the cozy confines of his irresistible melodies would be a challenge for any band. So The Shins are caught in a musical purgatory in which they timidly dip their toes into experimentation while clinging dearly to familiar conventions.

Wincing‘s most obvious successes are found in the songs that slightly update the tone of their earlier work. “Phantom Limb” is power pop in all its bombastic glory, with guitars and drums that reverberate endlessly around ascending vocal refrains (think Big Star meets The Jesus and Mary Chain). Poignant songs like “Sleeping Lessons” and “A Comet Appears” benefit from tasteful and precise instrumental arrangements.

But the album’s key moment is the frolicking sing-along “Australia.” Exuding joy and melodic inventiveness, the band sounds loose and unwieldy, comfortable and carefree, contrasting starkly with Wincing‘s more overwrought songs.

It’s clear that certain tracks were experiments of sorts, but many of them fail to translate into fully realized compositions. “Black Wave” is a brooding foray into prog-rock, while “Split Needles” is a perplexing attempt at post-punk. “Sea Legs” is the most confounding of all these experiments in its excessive length and overblown string and vocal arrangement. Lyrically, Mercer is still incredibly sharp, and the songs brim with surreal juxtapositions, “You’d be damned to be one of us, girl / faced with a dodo’s conundrum / Ah, I felt like I could just fly / but nothing happens every time I try.”

Wincing exposes The Shins for who they really are: a great melodic pop band. When they abandon melodic structures they often fail to produce worthwhile results. The Byrds, Love and The Zombies were all great melody-based pop bands who found ways to innovate without losing their harmonic foundation, and The Shins should do the same. Mercer should be proud to sing about his “girl” – there’s no need for him to run from what he does best.

The Shins
Wincing the Night Away
Sub Pop

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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