Is it any use calling The Shins a band when, over the course of several lineups, it’s become painfully clear James Mercer is The Shins? Right now, there’s a pretty kickass touring roster (Jess Dobson, Joe Plummer, Richard Swift, Yukki Matthews), but even they seem at the mercy of their frontman’s auteurism—Mercer played many of the instruments himself in recording. Clearly, the guy’s particular. It’s been five years since the outfit pressed its last album, Wincing the Night Away, and in its wake, Mercer turned his attentions to having children, recording with Danger Mouse side-project Broken Bells and generally chilling in the Pacific Northwest (or at least that’s what one writer would like to imagine). He’s expressed numerous times his doubts on The Shins’ staying power after such a prolonged silence.
By the band’s own admission, Port of Morrow targets the iTunes audience who “downloaded-Adele’s-21-multiple-times.” And from the first track, it’s clear that this is a move toward the pop-sensible. This album is heads and shoulders more palatable than its three predecessors. Mercer eschews his lovely falsetto for high howling over boppy, almost Phoneix-esque grooves. Instead of humdrum moroseness, ghostly harmonies and lovably nonsensical lyricism, we have clear vocals, basic premises and (for the most part) cheery vibes. Mercer remains a deeply proficient lyricist, and it might be said that the turn towards prosaic suits him better. In the upbeat standout “Bait and Switch” he sings, “I finally had all my ducks in a row/Peace and quiet by means of subtraction”: lines weaned from experience.
Since Garden State hailed The Shins a band that will “change your life,” a lot has changed with the world. If somehow Oh, Inverted World were released new in March 2012, it wouldn’t mean nearly the same thing. Of course things change, but one of the most telling details in recent interviews with Mercer is his shift from introspection to looking outward, the result of starting a family. He told The New York Times, “Until having kids, I had never really thought about mortality so much.” Not to be mistaken, there are love songs on Port of Morrow, pleas and ballads (see the beautiful, breezy “September”), learning lessons and a desire to turn things around. But it’s all done through a nongenretized looking glass, without all the angsty, youthful wonder (Mercer is now 41), without Jesse Sandoval (fired in 2007) and without Dave Hernandez (walk-out). Short of calling it commercial, the album showcases Mercer’s sheer penchant for infectious, middle-of-the-road songwriting, in the tradition of the greats before him.
What is Port of Morrow? In one sense, it’s a new beginning, the reimagining of a band inextricably wound up in what it means to be “indie”; on the other hand, it’s the uncertain future, where Mercer doesn’t quite know where to turn next, what the new day will bring in harbor. The title song itself is a sour, slow melody in haunting falsetto, “Under my hat it breathes, the lines are all imagined/A fact of life I know to hide from my little girls/I know my place amongst the birds and all the animals.” At one point, in a spine-tingling turn he addresses his “dear listener,” even surmising, “life is death is life.” In that sense, there’s still an air of mystery to this Shins release. Even if it fails to cut as deeply as previous efforts, it seems dangerously cast between two roles: one of chart-climbing rock record and the other of new-sound, new-vibe Shins. If there is one hope, one overlooked circumstance that could inadvertently boost Port of Morrow, it’s the inexplicable resurgence of rock on the pop charts in the past year. First, Foster the People and now, fun.—even stretching back to Contra and The Suburbs—have proved it’s not a foregone conclusion, as it basically was five years ago, that a new band with an indie aesthetic could top the charts. Then again, the one that did five years ago saw both Mercer and Plummer lend a hand.
The Shins – Port of Morrow tracklist:
- “The Rifle’s Spiral”
- “Simple Song”
- “It’s Only Life”
- “Bait and Switch”
- “No Way Down”
- “For a Fool”
- “Fall of ’82”
- “40 Mark Strasse”
- “Port of Morrow”