There is a certain charm about James Mercer’s special brand of heartstring-tugging songwriting imagery, and about his band’s delightful vanilla instrumentation. After a five-year hiatus, indie superstars the Shins are back with Port of Morrow, a delightful new ten-song dose of effusive sunset pop.
The album’s opening song, “The Rifle’s Spiral”, actually exemplifies one of the few things wrong with this album, and that is Mercer’s (who has professed to being inspired by one-man indie auteurs, and who I’m assuming did most of the musical direction) deviation towards electronic experimentation. The song is laden with alien beeps and squirms, which makes it the disc’s weakest, especially because it contrasts with Mercer’s songwriting abilities. One of the Shins’ greatest strengths is their ability to pull off lines like “Another grain of indigent salt to the sea” and not sound pretentious while doing it.
Thankfully, the album takes a turn for the better after a lackluster opener, and the meat of the record is Mercer at his most genuine and natural, especially in the catchy “Simple Song”, the album’s first single, and the wonderfully textured and especially well-written “No Way Down,” which seems to nod at the Occupy movement. But the album’s lyrics as a whole are not political statements; they tend more towards songs from the heart and the hearth, cozy and nostalgic songs.
Let’s make it clear that I’m not abhorring electronic sounds entirely; all I’m saying is that this arena doesn’t benefit the Shins well at all. Especially on this albums, the subjects are honest and relatable, with lyrics like “Every single story is a story about love,” which meshes better with acoustic instrumentation than the opening track’s beeps and whizzes. Elsewhere, on songs like “September”, electronic choral effects complement the acoustic guitars nicely. Thankfully, the electronic effects never get too intrusive, but Mercer should take care not to overdo it in future releases. He credits Danger Mouse for the album’s sound, but he would be better off crediting the Shins.
On the whole the album is pleasant and worth savoring, but its finale, the six-minute “Port of Morrow,” should be presented as a cautionary tale about the Shins. The song is a beautiful meditation on life and death and the space in between, well-written and evocative, but Mercer’s voice is distorted by a strange effect, and the track’s tail end fades out into synthetic drums and ghostly background singing. This sounds befitting for such a haunting song, but the result is awkward. The effects don’t add anything special. The title Port of Morrow seems to point toward’s the future, but let’s hope that in the next five years Mercer will return to his roots and realize this whole electronic thing was just a phase. We wouldn’t want to lose such splendid ballads underneath a haze of drum machines and distortions. Score: 8/10.
Jake Bittle / A&E Editor