It's 7 a.m. Monday morning, and I am driving down Broadway Boulevard. The snow from the night before has not yet melted, and the sun is just beginning to rise behind the clouds. The opening notes of Wincing the Night Away hum around the interior of my frozen car, and I can't think of a more perfect sound for the landscape outside. It's minute two of "Sleeping Lessons," and acoustic guitars have slipped in. At 2:26, the electric guitars and drums kick in, and it's definitely The Shins, but seen from a different, better angle.
Wincing the Night Away has more synthesizers than The Shins have used before, and the songs are more about creating a mood than two-minute pop gems. What was brilliant about Chutes Too Narrow and Oh, Inverted World was the band's reinterpretation of the verse-chorus-verse formula: The Shins put together seamless blends of parts, creating melodies and hooks that were so catchy, they became ingrained on a cellular level. On Wincing the Night Away, this effect might not be immediate, but when it happens, it's euphoric.
Hints of The Cure and '60s and '70s pop mix with those bright, sustained guitar chords and straining, blended vocals. "A Comet Appears" ends the record with mournful horns and pedal steel, and "Sea Legs" even has flutes accenting the near-funk bass line. "Turn on Me" and "Black Wave" could be at home on previous Shins records, but then the synthesizer on "Split Needles" gives The Shins what every great band welcomes with open minds: yet another way to make their songs breathe.