No one could have imagined a more appropriate outcome for James Mercer when the creatively obscure rags of Flake Music led to the everyman populist Indie Rock riches of The Shins. Strangely, but perhaps predictably, Mercer’s recent career moves seem more indicative of diva behavior, signing with Columbia Records, dismissing his longtime bandmates and making The Shins something of a solo venture while exploring a new and admittedly fascinating aesthetic with Danger Mouse in their Broken Bells collaboration.
All of this has transpired in the long gap since The Shins’ last album, 2007’s largely brilliant Wincing the Night Away, and the hiatus, coupled with Mercer’s oddly twisting creative path, have served to intensify the scrutiny on the long-awaited fifth album from The Shins, Port of Morrow.
At first blush, there is a clear difference between the wide-eyed cryptic wonder of 2001’s Oh Inverted World and the more calculated and plainly spoken weariness of Port of Morrow. Perhaps the most marked difference between the old collective Shins and the new solo-centric Shins is Mercer’s place in the mix. On the first three albums, his keening voice and hallucinogenic lyrical constructs were sublimated into the music, while Wincing the Night Away found him rising above the music’s sonic profile (Michael Stipe followed a similar path on REM’s upward spiral). Mercer’s process is complete on Port of Morrow, as his vocals ring with confidence and clarity even as his lyrics still inspire some allusory head scratching.
The album’s first single, “Simple Song” (see the video for it below), lives up to its title by stripping The Shins’ melodic and lyrical complexity to its basic elements, with the chorus serving as a possible manifesto for the newly liberated Mercer (“I know that things can really get rough, when you go it alone/Don’t go thinking you gotta be tough, and play like a stone/Could be there’s nothing else in our lives so critical, as this little home”). There are moments that hearken back to The Shins of old with the obvious new tweaks (“It’s Only Life,” “40 Mark Strasse”) and a few new wrinkles (the Samba-flecked “Bait and Switch,” the straightforward Indie Pop bristle of “No Way Down,” the rootsy reverb of “For a Fool”).
For fans who have fallen helplessly in love with the Shins’ sonic atmospherics and delightfully indecipherable wordplay, Port of Morrow may be confoundingly understandable. Still, like every Shins album to date, Port of Morrow’s greatest rewards are revealed through prolonged exposure.