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Album review: The Shins, 'Port of Morrow'

The Shins Port of Morrow

Since recording Wincing the Night Away, The Shins' frontman James Mercer has undergone some major changes. In the last six years the Hawaiian born singer/songwriter/guitarist got married, had a couple of children, turned 40, starred in a feature film, formed a record label, and started a new band, Broken Bells, with Danger Mouse. Meanwhile electronic music rapidly permeated practically every genre, changing the face of Shins-style indie pop. Now, with their fourth full-length, Port of Morrow, the pressure is on for Mercer and the band to maintain the sound that made them successful without becoming irrelevant.

With just a cursory listen, Port of Morrow is somewhat forgettable. On a track like “No Way Down”, for example, it’s easy to lose interest amongst the sleepy instrumentals, wordy lyrics, and Mercer’s overly familiar vocal territory.

It’s a grower of an album, though, far more complex and innovative than first meets the eye. “Simple Song,” the album’s lead single, for example, is a little generic at first, but there’s a layer of real substance behind it. Lyrically, its strength comes from its self-awareness; with the introductory line “Well, this is just a simple song”, Mercer anticipates criticism — he’s not reinventing the wheel, and he knows it. Instead, as he talks of dreaming “your face on a football field” “when I was just nine years old” and acknowledges “that things can really get rough”, Mercer is being a realist. He’s crafting an earnest, mature love song — not a kid’s expression of desire but a 41-year-old’s tribute to his wife.

The same is pretty true for the album as a whole — it’s not the same kind of epic album The Shins were making ten years ago, but it doesn’t have to be. They’re all more grown up and so is the record. One manifestation of that maturity is a much stronger folk influence than usual. “September”, “For a Fool”, and “It’s Only Life” in particular are all slower, reflective tracks driven by Mercer’s intimate vocals and some wisping country guitar work that would make Neko Case or Nels Cline proud.

At the same time, though, Port of Morrow is certainly not just an old man’s album. Working with Danger Mouse has clearly influenced Mercer’s style as he displays a certain electronic sensibility on a few key tracks. On opener “The Rifle’s Spiral”, for example, a cyclical, spacey beat expands and contracts the track as it slowly evolves. Later, on the closing title track, Mercer boldly goes falsetto for his best Thom Yorke impression. He pulls off the jazzy, avant-garde vocals, though, and with the subtle piano track, careful drumbeat, and more spacey electronics the album ends on one of its highest notes.

The Shins’ fourth album may not have the same youthful exuberance as the first three, but it doesn’t have to. It’s an honest, mature record from a group of talented musicians led by one hell of a songwriter.

Port of Morrow is due out on March 20 via Aural Apothecary. Listen to “Simple Song” and the title track below.