The music world has been abuzzin’ with opinions of the new Shins’ album, Port of Morrow. Reviews generally begin with a comment on how long it’s been since the band’s last record (5 years), then continue to compare and contrast the new tracks with classics from Oh, Inverted World and also with frontman James Mercer’s solo project, Broken Bells. Then they’ll go on to say how Port of Morrow has some great tracks and some forgettable ones, how James Mercer is a fantastic songwriter so they don’t offend any long-time fans, and close with a quote that somewhat represents the author’s attitude towards the future of The Shins. I think this equation fails.
The Shins have only released four full albums in over ten years. Since 2001, group members have come and go (the most exciting addition being Modest Mouse’s Joe Plummer) but Mercer has remained. His lyrics and unique voice are what denote a Shins song from all of the other pop-indie bands. Every lyric is his. He is The Shins. So even though it’s a “The” band, I think it’s important to view it as one man’s project. And over ten years, a project is going to change. It seems there are two paths that rock bands can choose from—release an album every one or two years or space them out like babies (so they’re never in college at the same time). Mercer has taken the latter route. This choice poses a challenge, however: with only fifty-ish Shins songs floating around in the world, they all have to be good. There’s no room for a bland record. Mercer apparently gets this.
Port of Morrow incorporates both what old fans love about old albums (like the clarity and poignancy of “Young Pilgrims” and the poppy high of “Pressed In A Book”) and what he learned about production from being in Broken Bells with Danger Mouse, who also produced the most recent record. I call Port of Morrow a success, a happy marriage between Mercer’s two loves: sincere lyrics and rhythmic pop. Mercer achieves a lot in eleven tracks. One of the most important aspects of a great album is a strong start. Opening track “The Rifle’s Spiral” achieves this. I feel as if Mercer is saying, “I know you’ve been waiting for this. I’m going to give it to you now.” It begins with a burst. From there, we’re given lovable hits like “Simple Song”, ballads like “It’s Only Life”, and the oh-so-danceable “Bait and Switch”. My personal pick is “No Way Down”, a track that is so obviously 90’s-inspired and completely aware of it. “Fall of ’82” has, ironically, a 60’s vibe. The title track is exactly what you might think a “Port of Morrow” would sound like. It’s eerie, and Mercer’s voice seems to be floating through the gray fog foreshadowed by the album’s cover art. Listeners are left feeling like they’ve sat through a good film, a project that took them places, from happy highs to personal lows, through tightly produced synth-pop and acoustic simplicity. I applaud Mercer and his new partners and look forward to seeing them at Sweetlife Festival at the end of the month.