In many ways, James Mercer did the polite thing in waiting five long years to release The Shins’ fourth album, Port of Morrow.
He gave you time to play the living Christ out of “New Slang,” assuming you hadn’t already (it’s never going to get old). He let you re-absorb Chutes Too Narrow once you realized that Wincing the Night Away’s spectacular singles couldn’t match the former’s spirited cohesion. If that wasn’t enough, he handed the remaining original band members the pink slip — or perhaps the pink guitar pick or whatever pink object translates to “You’re Fired” in the Bizness — and replaced them with four random instrumentalists who flat-out resemble the type of people you’d expect to play in a band called “The Shins.”
In theory, Mercer gave you every opportunity to forget The Shins, just so Port of Morrow could serve as a re-introduction. Fittingly, after such a long layoff (aside from projects like Broken Bells), he jumps right in with the catchy, quirky “The Rifle’s Spiral,” a rather Shinsy approach to the tune of Arcade Fire’s “Ready to Start.” Once you get going, though, there is very little about this album that should surprise you. Despite premium production and a few extra layers that have since joined the group, the album chugs along the heels of Mercer’s wistful, genre-defining voice. It also incorporates something quite rare for a Shins offering: Choruses. Lots of clearly defined choruses, in fact.
Take the excellent lead single “Simple Song.” The song’s most charming moments are in the chorus, when Mercer’s pipes burst into a pitch so high and smile-inducing that the lyrics couldn’t possibly be anything but “I know that things can really get rough when you go it alone/Don’t go thinking you’ve gotta be tough and play like a stone.” It’s Mercer’s current crisis and cure, put whimsically but concretely into layman’s terms. It’s also quite the surprisingly uplifting spout, contingent with many others among The Shins’ catalogue.
Moving along, the opening seconds of third track “It’s Only Life” eerily resemble “What if God Was One of Us?” to the point that I literally lip-synced Joan Osborne in my car without even realizing it. However, as is the case with many songs here, Mercer’s reassuring chorus saves the day and boosts what could have been a corny spiel about ‘liiiiife’ into a satisfying break from the action. That said, we get right back to business with “Bait and Switch,” a gleeful and identifiable tale about a straight edge who can’t seem to keep pace with the wild girl he’s with. [Insert obvious Belle & Sebastian reference.]
Now, I’ve got to tell you, there are three songs from this album — one of which being “Simple Song” — that I can see myself taking with me for a long time, so I’d like to get to them, if you don’t mind. And that’s not taking anything away from pure pop gem “No Way Down,” slow-burner “For a Fool,” classic rock throwback “Fall of ‘82” or album closer and title track “Port of Morrow,” which we’ll actually revisit later. But I can’t let you stop reading without realizing just how wonderful I consider “September” and “40 Mark Strasse” to be. They’re just goddamn beautiful tracks — each in a unique way — and that’s not a descriptor I remember using with The Shins before. “40 Mark’s” chorus melts into a harmony so soothing that you forget that Mercer’s meanwhile talking about the life of a war-era German prostitute. As for “September,” well, you’ll just have to listen for yourself. It’s as Shinsesque as they come, but there’s a warm sort of spin on it — either from the “wheeeeeews” or from Mercer’s newfound take on sweet, sweet love — that I think eventually will make it fairly irresistible.
We conclude with the title track, the mysterious “Port of Morrow”, which might as well be any Radiohead song’s weird second cousin. Lying beneath Mercer’s dark, twisted falsetto is a rather enormous statement about life, death and the afterlife. (“A preacher on a stage like a buzzard cries/Out a warning of phony sorrow, he’s trying to get a rise”). He even directly addresses us with “dear listeners” and says that despite the curls on his daughters’ heads, there’s only a skull beneath. And that’s how the album ends. It ends with that line. That’s the parting message, people, that despite all of the bountiful love and adventure that precedes the final track, everything’s ultimately dark, gray and going to die.
I can’t possibly compete with such a final, resounding statement, but I’ll leave you with this: Port of Morrow is a winner on most accounts, and where it succeeds it also fails. This is now Mercer’s project and his alone. After a decade, one man can only spawn so much creativity and at times the album tends to wander back to familiar places that you may not have exactly adored in the first place or approach depths that you really wish it hadn’t. But the trick is to lose the context, to lose the idea that the Shins peaked when they first peeked and to enjoy the songs on this album and this album alone. Put it all in the right perspective and I have a feeling you’ll remember how dazzling and utterly refreshing an outing with The Shins can be.
Album Rating: 8.2/10