TOO POPULAR?: “You’re finally golden, boy,” James Mercer sings, “perched on the handlebars of a blind man’s bike.
The Shins’ third album, Wincing the Night Away (Sub Pop), is as good as any rational mortal should expect an indie-pop album to be in the winter of 2007. For the sizable fan base of this Portland-via-Albuquerque band, however, that summation is damning with fine praise. In 2003, singer-songwriter James Mercer defied all expectations on the Shins’ second album, Chutes Too Narrow (Sub Pop), laying out 11 tuneful, sensitive, yet often hard-biting songs with a delicate oddness that seemed to transcend rationality as it plumbed his youthful, lonely, romantic alienation to the depths of mortality itself. As almost every review of the new album has noted, the following year Natalie Portman both defined that achievement and won Mercer his huge audience in the surprise hit Garden State. In a crucial scene, she passed her headphones to writer/director/main character Zach Braff as the soundtrack played “New Slang,” from the Shins’ 2001 debut, Oh! Inverted World (Sub Pop). “You’ve got to hear this one song,” exclaimed the bright-eyed object of every lonely alienated romantic boy’s dreams. “It’ll change your life, I swear.”
For me, the change had already happened, but it took more than the iconic passing of the iPod earpieces. I spent months unpeeling the layers of Chutes Too Narrow to get at why a friend and unflappable fellow critic gave the album a rare A-plus. By the time I’d gotten to the core of my pleasure, I’d discarded all my doubts. Personally, I didn’t like Garden State much at all. (And I wouldn’t miss the lovely Ms. Portman for a second if I never saw her perfect eyebrows again.) Yet I’d rank Chutes Too Narrow and the Postal Service’s Give Up (also released by Sub Pop in 2003) and Sufjan Stevens’s Illinoise (Asthmatic Kitty, 2005) as the greatest indie-pop albums I’ve heard in this strange decade, a time where vague phrases like “indie pop” are damning by oxymoron.
And that’s exactly why I stoop to MySpace-type listings of likes and dislikes as I try to peg what the Shins are capable of. Like Postal Service and Sufjan Stevens, Mercer and his decade-old band proved that indie musicians could redefine “pop” as a personal experience, making quirky music that sounded like a private coffeehouse secret, even when it was being enjoyed by a bajillion double-latte sippers around the globe. That was the magic of Chutes Too Narrow. Everyone from young bloggers to seasoned critics like Will Hermes (who delivered a modestly glowing NPR review) has tossed around parallels with the Beatles and Beach Boys in an attempt to categorize the ambition of the new Wincing the Night Away. But at their best, Mercer and those other gifted indie-popsters have a slow, arcing, almost conversational sense of melody that goes back to the ’70s birth of the pop underground, to cult artists like Big Star and Nick Drake. Like the odd, folk-influenced vinyl from those long-beloved secrets, the new indie-popsters’ masterpieces don’t challenge a mass audience to enter new musical world; they invite you back to their private rooms, setting your senses tingling as you enter spaces that feel uncannily strange and familiar at once.
On Wincing the Night Away, Mercer abandons that virtual apartment for a virtual stage — one that feels like an amalgam of the 1980s European goth clubs where this 36-year-old Air Force brat may have seen the Smiths and the Cure, and the caverns where he’s now hung with the Strokes and just missed partying with his heroes the Beta Band. The new professionalism is all but unavoidable, as the Shins stand poised to become actual stars, perhaps even on the level of My Chemical Romance or Fall Out Boy. According to a current profile in Spin, Portman’s pro bono PR work not only changed the Shins’ sales base — their first two albums have together now sold more than a million copies worldwide — but also the prospects of their Warner Bros.–associated label, Sub Pop (an indieland icon that, y’know, discovered Nirvana), and everything about James Mercer’s life. In the years between Chutes and Wincing, this insomniac (thus the album title) packed in what seem to be three or four lifetimes’ worth of sexual experiences, and now a marriage. The couple are awaiting the birth of their first child.
It’s no wonder, then, that the new album seeks to establish a distance between the performer and his audience. Working for the first time with an actual producer — Joe Chiccarelli, who’s texturized Beck, among others — Mercer opts for a bigger sound full of layered, lightly echoing effects and sudden intrusions of unexpected instruments: flutes, fuzzy guitars, backward tape loops, electronic beats. But with his lyrics, he’s gone the opposite way, becoming so gnomic that his oddly phrased sentiments are now simply inscrutable. Some songs are about recognizable subjects — “Split Needles” addresses his new-found success (“You’re finally golden, boy . . . perched on the handlebars of a blind man’s bike”); others come together if you track down his explanations in interviews. (He’s revealed that “Phantom Limb” is about two lesbians.) But the words no longer open up on their own as the music becomes familiar, revealing philosophical musings about love and estrangement that would do any poet proud. Now they’re just another layer of tasteful aural gloss.