The Shins' 2001 Oh, Inverted World was a siren song from a familiar type: "pimpled and angry" outsider saved by music, but still cut off from the love he seeks by unkind women and cruel fate. In 2003, Chutes Too Narrow topped two pained kiss-off songs with four fatalistic philosophical ones, then shifted into a nostalgic tribute to a girlfriend from the pimpled years, two self-critical relationship songs, and an enigmatic acoustic finale for "Those to Come," who are "waiting in the ether to form, feel, kill, propagate, only to die." The shapeliness of this sequence wasn't instantly self-evident. But nothing less would have suited one of the deftest, subtlest and just plain loveliest guitar-rock albums of the decade.
More than three years later, James Mercer and his mates have finally followed up that indie-rock touchstone. Because Mercer is adored for his musical facility, not his thematic depth, anything short of a Metal Machine Music homage will be ecstatically received, and Wincing the Night Away certainly isn't that. The melodies are very nearly on a par with the curlicues and knockout drops of the band's breakthrough, and Mercer is still singing so lithe and refined you'd think Ray Charles had never existed. But as you'd hope from a record that took so long, this is not Chutes Too Narrow II. From the soft vibraphone arpeggio that introduces "Sleeping Lessons," Mercer abandons the delicate clarity that put Chutes Too Narrow across, and not for the good-natured low-fi of the debut. On most tracks, guitar lines are washed aside by vaguer keyboard, string and miscellaneous sounds, and most of the time Mercer's voice is doubled, echoed or otherwise treated.
We're in a prog moment that stretches from Joanna Newsom to Thom Yorke to My Chemical Romance, so indie fans may welcome such adjustments, and it's no insult to wonder whether Mercer isn't simply trend-hopping — not when the trend answers so many young musicians' felt formal needs. Sheer melody aside, Chutes Too Narrow's greatest achievement is the apparent simplicity with which it executes Mercer's intricacies, and for that, sonic distinctness is essential. Wincing the Night Awayavoids prog grandiosity, and Mercer isn't schooled enough to waste time imitating Bach or Debussy. But the two earlier records come in under thirty-four minutes; here, eleven songs last 41:50. There's no way the new music can be good in all the modest ways the old music was. There's no way it can sound lissome or fetching or unguarded — and fewer ways it can sound lyrical or plaintive or homemade.
Instead, Wincing the Night Away feels labored. Gracefully realized though it is, you can hear the three-plus years Mercer spent pondering how to satisfy the expectations his surprise classic had created — and also how to remain fresh and true to himself. No doubt his mad legions will soon be shouting out the gnomic advice of "Australia" or the unresolved pleas of "Girl Sailor" the way they now chant the twisty argument for skepticism that is "Saint Simon." But fewer tunes here will lay such compulsions on the fan base. And fewer lyrics will help chat-room parsers understand.
Mercer has claimed he's cryptic because he's insecure — so insecure he spends insomniac nights reliving the mistakes he made the day before. But there are other reasons, like, for instance, the indie habit of poetic obscurantism, the communications breakdowns of the chronically lovelorn, and a disregard for — just on this record — "protocol" ("Sea Legs"), "the old guard" ("Sleeping Lessons") and other "pie in the sky/Chock full of lies" ("A Comet Appears"). But though his phrasemaking is always subsumed by his tunesmithing, the thematic thrust of the first two albums is reasonably explicit. Not so here.
Usually a vernacular veneer is maintained, but nowhere are Mercer's labors more pronounced than in clumsy bits of overreaching like "With burnt sage and a forest of bygones" or "Into the crucible to be rendered an emulsion." Where the tentative love songs "Sea Legs" and "Girl Sailor" stoop to recognizable emotion, the gorgeous "Red Rabbits" is willfully opaque, and the only way we know "Phantom Limb" is about two young lesbians is that Mercer has said so. For all this, blame the horrors of public identity pressing in. As "Spilt Needles" warns gorgeously, "We'll set you up with some odd convictions/Because you're finally golden, boy." Knowability is scary, and even in indie — especially in indie — fame is a cross to bear. "Propagate, only to die" you can learn to live with.