The Shins ‘Port of Morrow’ – Review

10 Apr

Who are The Shins? Or rather, who Is The Shins? The answer, it would now seem, is James Mercer. Read the credits of their new album ‘Port of Morrow’ and you’ll note that Guitarist Dave Hernandez and keyboardist Jesse Sandoval make the odd contribution, but they are no longer a part of the official lineup, and neither are the other original members. This initially appears problematic, but we have been assured by Mercer that The Shins have always essentially been a solo project in everything but name (like LCD Soundsystem or Florence and the Machine). The sacking of band mates is one of several reasons some people suspect that Mercer is somewhat ruthless in his ambition. He got rid of the original drummer in 2007 because he wasn’t good enough,  and ‘Port of Morrow’ is being released by Major label Columbia, rather than their old label, the notoriously indie Subpop.

He draws attention to this issue on one of his new songs, the brilliant ‘September’. ‘I’ve been selfish and full of pride, And she knows deep down there’s a little child/ But I’ve got a good side to me as well, And it’s that she loves in spite of everything else’. The song finds Mercer poetically shutting the door on questions of confidence or arrogance, ambition or ruthlessness. Besides, by some accounts he’s a nice guy, and we mustn’t let these issues distract us from the one fact that has never been in doubt: The Shins are amongst the very finest indie bands of the 21st Century. ‘September’ is one of many songs that prove this on ‘Port of Morrow’.

The Shins return was announced rather unexpectedly when they put ‘Simple Song’ online for download, the perfect introduction to the album. In three and a half minutes The Shins remind you of everything that’s great about them: the song is catchy, direct and melodic but with a new robust quality. These adjectives could describe the album as a whole, as it’s their most powerful and dynamic release yet, full of power-pop nuggets that go straight for the jugular. ‘Simple Song’ is best song on ‘Port of Morrow’, an album that is, after ‘Chutes Too Narrow’ at least, their most consistent record yet.

Unfortunately it begins with a dud. Maybe I would like ‘The Rifle’s Spiral’ more if it wasn’t the first song on the album, but as it is, the moody mid tempo song feels flat and devoid of anything interesting to say or an interesting way to say it. They should have led with the much stronger ‘Simple Song’ because after this there is no letting down. Many of the tunes hark back to your favourite Shins moments; ‘September’ must surely draw comparisons to the psych-folk sounds of ‘Young Pilgrims’, ‘Bait and Switch’ recalls ‘Know Your Onion;. and ‘It’s Only Life’ reminds me of ‘Turn on Me’. If there is a difference it’s in the production; they have veered away from the mostly successful experimentation of ‘Wincing the Night Away’ but they’ve stuck with the polished sound that caused some upset last time around. For a band that made their name on DIY recordings, the sleakness that now colours their music was always bound to feel a little odd, but I mostly think ‘Port of Morrow’ has benefited from what sounds like a very expensive production.

Free from the distracting up front (but amazing) harmonies, Mercer’s melodies are more direct and powerful, the lyrics are easier to decipher, and the musical intricacies are impressively apparent. The clean sound also compliments The Shins new mainstream friendly musical direction; the rough edges have been smoothed and they’ve calmed down enough to appeal to mums and dads. It’s a traditionally varied album that includes a Thin Lizzy meets Belle and Sebastian rocker called ‘Fall of 82’, a lushly orchestrated ballad called ‘Taken For a Fool’ and a very creepy r&b influenced title track.

The lyrics are more coherent here than they have been before, but in a way Mercer looses his edge when you can understand what he’s going on about. He’s better talking in riddles – you may not know what on earth he means, but it sounds great, and occasionally of course he hits on an absolute gem. Take for example, ‘how will you learn to steer when you’re grinding all your gears?’ or ‘My life in an upturned boat, Marooned on a cliff/ You brought me a great big flood, And you gave me a lift.’ The album tackles similar themes to ‘Wincing the Night’ away; there are songs about love, friendship and growing up, and In the tradition of ‘So Says I’ and ‘Sleeping Lessons’, Mercer also tackles politics in a vague but somewhat engaging way. On ‘No Way Down’ he sings ‘all of our working days are done/ But a tiny few are having all of the fun/ Apologies to the sick and the young/ Get used to their dust in your lungs.’

In the film ‘Garden State’, Natalie Portman’s character famously said of The Shins ‘New Slang that ‘this song will change your life’. I always thought she was barking up the wrong tree – I’d be surprised if The Shins have changed anyone’s life, as they are about the least revolutionary band I can think of.  Rather, their music has a reassuring, comforting quality and it’s that quality that shines on ‘Port of Morrow’. James Mercer is comfortably middle aged, and after five years away it’s fair to say that he’s lost some of the inspiration and momentum that he had in 2007 after ‘Wincing the Night Away’. But this time last year I wasn’t expecting another Shins album at all, let alone one as good as this. Hopefully we won’t have to wait five years for another album.



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