REVIEW: The Shins – Port of Morrow

It’s been around five years since The Shins last put out an album, with 2007’s Wincing the Night Away. Since then there’s been little output from the band, besides frontman James Mercer‘s foray with producer Danger Mouse for the 2010 album and EP as Broken Bells. With the announcement of Port of Morrow, fans finally had their prayers answered. With so much time passing, and a complete changeup of the band’s members, would The Shins live up to their past legacy? The answer: more or less, yeah.

Although they perform as a band, The Shins is pretty much just James Mercer‘s brainchild. There’s been so many changes to who’s who in the band that it’s hard to keep track. One thing remains constant: Mercer is in full command. If there were no Mercer, there would be no Shins. Even with some fresh recruits in the band, the instrumentation stays as strong as ever; from the flurry of lighter-than-air synths, to the jolly keyboard notes and the breezy guitar strums. The band play well together as it stands, and the changes don’t seem to have any detrimental effects on the way the band operates.

Now, as far as American up-beat indie-pop music goes, The Shins have been put upon a pretty big pedestal over the years, next to all the other contemporary greats. With this reputation in mind, after only a relatively small discography of three LP’s, it was always going to be tough to live up to the rather unfair expectations of the general public. And for all intents and purposes, they made quite an admirable effort with Port of Morrow.

The band have a very distinct sound to them due mainly to Mercer’s love-it-or-hate-it vocal style. I know some people who find his octaves a little too sugary-sweet to handle in large quantities but to my ear they sound almost heavenly. I’ve developed a theory that it’s almost impossible to not have a massive grin on your face when listening to Mercer’s tones, and that is still very much the case on their latest offering. Even when the album takes a turn towards more morose territory, Mercer’s delivery gives it all a warm glow that stops things from ever getting too dark.

Another one of Mercer’s many talents is his ability to conjure up illustrious imagery by putting words and phrases together in simple yet effective ways. The album sticks to well-trodden territory, thematically; love, trust, redemption, all that jazz. What defines The Shins are all the clever little lines and phrases that are bound to clog up many a peoples’ Twitter and Facebook feeds. Take, for example, lead single ‘Simple Song’; lines like “My life in an upturned boat, marooned on a cliff” and “you feel like an ocean warmed up by the sun” evoke such vivid imagery that it’s hard not to be drawn in by it all. Mercer explores a smorgasbord of attitudes and emotions throughout Port of Morrow, from triumphant (‘Simple Song‘), reflective (‘It’s Only Life’), thankful and understanding (‘September‘), nostalgic (‘Fall of ’82’) just to name a few.

Production on the album is overseen by Greg Kurstin, who has expertise mainly in pop music, with production credits on albums by Lily Allen and Britney Spears just to name a few. His assistance has helped give the album a very pristine and meticulously album. There are so many things going on musically that at times it feels a little overwhelming. It veers dangerously close to feeling too overproduced. I can see some of the tracks on here getting plays on daytime radio given the opportunity, and that’s probably due in part to Kurstin. Although the music does have quite a wide appeal, it hasn’t taken too much of a departure from their past material; it’s not like The Shins were ever a particularly hard band to get into.

Unsurprisingly, the highlight of the album is ‘Simple Song’. The song glimmers with the magic that make The Shins such a revered band. The bouncy, invigorating melody and whimsical lyrics are but a few of the things that make it one of the best songs that I’ve heard recently, and among the best songs the band have ever produced. Words won’t really do it justice so I’ll just link a video to this so you can see for yourself.

The biggest downfall of Port of Morrow is that is loses steam at quite an alarming rate. The band end up sounding a bit tired way before the record is over. By the time the almost-six-minute album closer rolls around, it already feels too long. This would be okay for most albums, but this record is only ten tracks long as it is. The latter half of the album feels kind-of throwaway compared to the strong start. ‘Fall of ’82‘ and 40 Mark Strasse‘ feel largely forgettable despite some nice touches from the band (such as the trumpet solo on ‘Fall of ’82’), while ‘No Way Down’ has a frankly generic 90’s alt-rock opening, that gradually improves as the song goes on. Midpoint of the record ‘September‘ marks a noticeable shift in quality from there on out and it’s honestly a little disappointing from a band of such pedigree.

In Garden State, (you knew I had to reference it somewhere) during a scene in a hospital waiting room, Natalie Portman proclaims that listening to New Slang by the band will change Zach Braff’s life. With Port of Morrow, The Shins haven’t really replicated that notion. Instead of ‘life-changing’, the music on display here is, for the most part, simply ‘pleasant and enjoyable’. It has its moments and provides easy and addictive listening that showcase Mercer‘s ever-growing song crafting skills and upbeat pop even during the most routine areas of the album. I wanted to like this album more than I actually did in the end, but there’s still a lot of the spirit of the band you know and love here. I’m just glad they’re back.



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