The Shins are back, and four years on from their Grammy-nominated 2007 album, Wincing The Night Away, Port Of Morrow feels like a welcome visit to a well-loved – but nearly forgotten – old friend. James Mercer is at the helm, fulfilling all songwriting duties and masterfully leading yet another incarnation of his rotating cast of players.
The sound is leaps and bounds from the quiet, quirky, literary types the greater world first met through Zach Braff and his lovelorn 2004 film Garden State. Where Oh, Inverted World felt very much like the work of one dedicated and talented songwriter with a few instrumentalist friends, Port Of Morrow is a delightfully full-band affair. But, is there anything here that, like New Slang (the song from which Mercer may well never escape), will prompt smitten starlets to proclaim, “You gotta hear this one song. It’ll change your life, I swear”? Well, yes… maybe there is.
Upon first listen, Port Of Morrow sounds almost impossibly simple and pop-oriented – a far cry from the wistful experimentalism of Chutes Too Narrow’s Young Pilgrims or the divisively synth-driven and slow-building Sleeping Lessons from Wincing The Night Away. Mercer’s lyrics are still cerebral, poetic, and thickly indecipherable (Simple Song: “When I was just nine years old, I swear that I dreamt your face on a football field and a kiss that I kept.”), and still sung in his tell-tale tenor, but the music around him is lush, well-developed, and polished to perfection by way of Greg Kurstin’s production and Rich Costey’s mixing. Joe Plummer (Modest Mouse), Richard Swift, Yuuki Matthews (Crystal Skulls), and Jessica Dobson (Beck‘s guitarist) round out the ensemble nicely whilst Mercer contributes guitar, lap steel, percussion and glockenspiel.
The Rifle’s Spiral opens the album with a snatch of radio interference and windy atmospherics, conjuring images of arriving after a long and treacherous seafaring voyage at the fabled Port Of Morrow, guarded as it is by its mythical llama sentinel perched high atop a craggy knoll. The song itself is a raucous, spastic, percussive blast offset by Mercer’s well-worn tenor and whimsical synth washes. Lead single Simple Song is, by now, an undeniable entry into The Shins’ canon, but it bears mentioning that Mercer has finally come into his own as an accessible pop songwriter for a wider audience – perhaps thanks in part to his work with Danger Mouse as Broken Bells. The subtle re-treading of a Ronettes style Be My Baby rhythm mixed with Roy Bittan-esque piano flourishes, and the universally-leaning lyric “I know that things can really get rough when you go it alone,” combine to form a genuine pop gem. Spoiler alert: this is the one that could possibly change your life.
It’s Only Life drops the tempo and exuberance quite a bit, stripping things down to the basic singer-songwriter elements, Mercer taking on the role of torchbearer for the lonely. Bait And Switch is ’60s go-go party music for a new era (Free Design meets Jonathan Franzen?). September sounds nicely like a leftover from the Chutes Too Narrow sessions, so much so that it feels well-known upon first listen with its acoustic guitar and ghostly background falsetto. “Love is the ink in the well where her body lies,” Mercer sings, before things take a slight country/western turn for a Mercer slide-guitar solo. For A Fool ventures into waltzing, jazzy territory, so much so that it wouldn’t sound out of place coming from Norah Jones. The title track ends Port Of Morrow on a strange, distant, baroque note, almost as if our trip to this mythical land has come to an end and Mercer and his llama friends are performing one more as we bounce over the breakers, waving handkerchiefs and shouting promises to write.
Port Of Morrow has been a long time coming, and as such, it’s got its work cut out for it. Certainly, there’s the risk that folks with their hearts on their sleeves in 2004 (or even 2007) have grown up, gone cynical, and replaced emotional indie-rock with glitchy computer-based, sample-heavy tunes for a rapidly post-modernizing world. But, The Shins make a case for thoughtful, quirky music in the age of flash-in-the-pan blogosphere fickleness, and that’s something to write home about. Port Of Morrow demands repeat listens and carefree afternoons spent poring over lyric sheets. These are songs to fall in love to, to grow along with, and to share with friends in need of a life-change. The Shins are back; long live The Shins.