Much has already been written about the Shins' new album, Wincing the Night Away (which comes out Tuesday), including the fact that the majority of the songs were inspired by singer/songwriter James Mercer's bouts of "crippling insomnia."
Whether or not that's entirely true is debatable (see "New Shins Album Could Feature Amputation, Hawaiian Folk"), but what's more interesting is the fact that, for the first time in almost 15 years of playing together, the Shins have become a band about which much is written. And more pertinently, very little of it is about their career-making shout-out in Zach Braff's 2004 flick, "Garden State," or one of their songs being featured in a McDonald's commercial (as their debut album's "New Slang" was in 2003).
Make no mistake, the film helped. It lifted the band to the upper echelons of the indie elite and helped to make the release of its new album something of an event, one that merited an appearance on "Saturday Night Live" two weekends ago and big-time expectations from the group's label, Sub Pop (which will reportedly ship more than 200,000 copies of Wincing — the largest first-week numbers in the venerable label's 20-year history).
Of course, the Shins are expected to deliver upon such expectations — which wouldn't be a problem if Wincing the Night Away weren't far and away the most challenging and diverse record the band has ever made. Such attributes rarely translate into big-time sales.
"I remember being in the mixing studio, listening to the songs and saying, 'This is good sh--, and people just need to listen to it more than once,' because it had grown on us while we were working on it," Mercer sighed. "If people would listen to it more than twice, then I'd like to think that it would take root. And that may be sort of difficult in this day and age ... but you have to have a bit of faith in your fans. I just wrote these songs and produced them the best I could. And if you liked my previous work, I think you're gonna like this — you're just going to have to open up a bit."
With all that's riding on Wincing, you can't blame Mercer for being a bit reluctant to discuss his expectations for the record. Quietly, he'll admit that he at least hopes it'll sell more that the Shins' 2003 effort, Chutes Too Narrow, which sold more than 415,000 copies, but aside from that, he's refraining from making any sort of firm predictions.
And, to be honest, he's a little bummed out that he's been put in this position in the first place.
"I'm trying to be a good businessman now, and that's been a challenge. It isn't something I enjoy, because the whole game is so foreign to me. I mean, the idea of creating a popular record ... it's pretty nuts," he laughed. "I'd much rather sit and work on songs. But it's my livelihood now — I'm about to have a family — so, you know, it's important."
It's strange, then, that with all those expectations and a baby on the way, Mercer decided to craft such an uncommercial, sonically somnambulant album. Because whether he'll admit it or not, the majority of Wincing does remind the listener of late nights — quiet suburban streets, hazy half-dreams and the purple-black sky moments before sunrise. Which is fitting, because it was in that bizarre sort of half-awake world that Mercer wrote the majority of the album. Just don't get him started on the whole "crippling insomnia" thing.
"I may have some sort of insomnia — it's not crippling," he allowed. "But it's something I wrestle with once in awhile if I've got a stressful situation or something to deal with. And so, during the recording of this record, I was up late quite often and just found myself in this other world: my neighborhood at night," he said, referring to his Portland, Oregon hometown. "It's sort of romantic, it's spooky. And so I went with that as a theme and tried to create this nocturnal vibe. There's something to be said about being awake when everyone else is asleep. There's a spirit to it."
Now, the only thing that remains to be seen is whether or not the Shins' fans are willing to catch that spirit.
"Like I said, we all just did the best we could do, and if the record turns out to be a big hit, it'd be pretty astonishing — and I think it would actually mean that something has changed in popular culture," Mercer said, before his cup quickly became half-empty again.
"But, then, how long does that last? How long until we go back to 'NSYNC and Backstreet Boys? I mean, they're probably already in training in a warehouse somewhere as we speak."