Five years later, James Mercer returns to his comfortable outfit The Shins, and on the band’s fourth outing, things get slightly electronic. That shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, considering Mercer’s recent expeditions with Danger Mouse on Broken Bells, but it’s still somewhat of a new experience. But that’s sort of the glossy feeling that washes over Port of Morrow: new. In fact, the lone remaining member from the band is Mercer himself, having recruited new faces like singer/songwriter Richard Swift, drummer Joe Plummer (of Modest Mouse), Yuuki Matthews (of Crystal Skulls), and guitarist Jessica Dobson. He’s cleaned house – Billy Corgan style – and arguably that’s bound to raise some flags.
“Simple Song” has led many to believe otherwise. The album’s spearheading single echoes sounds from The Shins’ back catalogue; from the vocal-bruising chorus that bears striking similarities to Chutes Too Narrow‘s “Gone for Good”, or a verse that feels slighlty familial to “Girl Sailor” off Wincing the Night Away. That isn’t a sleight against the song; it’s an assurance that despite Mercer acting as the lone ranger here, it still feels like the ol’ gang. Things are just bigger, louder, more anthemic. In the same track, take note of the Rush-esque guitar lines spitting around in the back of each verse, or that cascading piano line in the chorus. It’s a sign that The Shins are moving away from the theaters and unpacking their gear at suburban arenas.
Opener “The Rifle’s Spiral” triggers these feelings, too. Its R.E.M. circa New Adventures in Hi-Fi sound is a sharper, more realized version of Broken Bells, but it soars rather than floats, like most of Mercer’s recent side project. The stylized electronic bits evolve what Mercer tinkered around with on 2007′s Wincing the Night Away (think: “Phantom Limb”, “Sea Legs”), evolving that traditional “indie sound” that’s become tragically stagnant over the last half decade. He does a good job of this throughout. “Bait and Switch” churns a nice wake through gooey fills and atmospherics, while “Port of Morrow” captures Mercer aping post-2000 Radiohead and taking scribbled notes from Brian Wilson demos, creating an extraterrestrial being that soothes and chills.
But, when it’s bad, it’s really bad, and that’s also a new thing for Mercer. He’s never written an awful song – at least not with The Shins. Previously, the name has sat comfortably atop three solid releases, stuffed back to back with poignant, unequivocal tracks that set new standards for its genre. A song like “It’s Only Life” does none of that; in fact, it’s the sort of sappy fluff whose plasticity poisons a genre. “I’ve been down the very road you’re walking on, it doesn’t have to be so dark and lonesome,” Mercer sings in his Bret Michaels best, and yet he continues: “It takes awhile, but we can figure this thing out.” Coupled with cutesy acoustics, a chorus best reserved for cast members on Glee, and sprawling amateurish lyrics, it’s less a B-side and moreover a middle school demo.
A few other tracks are just downright middling. “No Way Down” belongs on the follow up to Spin Doctor’s Pocket Full of Kryptonite, bouncing about with punchy chord progressions that prod the heart with its mediocrity, whereas “Fall of ’82″ doesn’t even sound like The Shins. In fact, play it over the PA at any theater across America, and sharp listeners might mistaken it for a forgotten Wilco number – latter day Wilco, if you were wondering. While the songwriting is at fault, so is the production. Mercer returns behind the boards again, but he’s also joined by producer Greg Kurstin. Kurstin’s resume involves a bevy of pop, having worked with the likes of Lily Allen, Kesha, and most recently Foster the People, and Morrow‘s smooth and sleek sheen may be a direct result of Kurstin’s influence.
Mercer manages to slip away from some of the muck with a number of powerful ballads. “For a Fool” offers a delightful escape, recalling the skyward daydreams that Crowded House trademarked; “September” digs up the meditative country flavors of the band’s past; and the synth-laden “40 Mark Strasse” sheds light on a future career in R&B or soul music for Mercer. In retrospect, it’s these handful of tracks that grasp your neck and coddle your heart just when you’re thinking about running away.
While promoting the album, Mercer has stated that Port of Morrow is about the dual nature of life, the beautiful and the grotesque. Apparently he took that theme literally, as he’s showcased both sides here. Still, the numerous blasts of tasteful songwriting shutter out the slip-ups, at least for the most part. Tracks like “The Rifles Spiral”, “Bait and Switch”, and “Simple Song” keep the band’s name alive and relevant in an ever-changing musical climate. That’s another thing: It’s been half a decade since Wincing the Night Away hit stores. That’s a long time, especially in this industry, as things change, artists come and go, and music evolves. Port of Morrow captures Mercer in a different era, and although questionable at times, it’s a fruitful adventure that requires a little swinging and paddling. But you’ll be better off for making the trip.
Essential Tracks: “The Rifles Spiral”, “Simple Song”, “September”, and “Bait and Switch”
Feature artwork by Drew Litowitz.