The Shins - Port of Morrow
“It’s just so fucking perfect,” these were the words with which I was first introduced to The Shins, in what seems like an eternity ago now. The person speaking, a good friend of mine, was referring to the use of early Shins singles ‘Caring is Creepy’ and ‘New Slang’ to soundtrack two very everyday scenes in 2004’s Garden State – returning to your hometown and sitting in a doctor’s waiting room. It was 2005 and I was just escaping an obsession with Sub Pop’s early bands, ready to jump into 21st century music, just as Sub Pop had done in 2001 with The Shins’ debut album, Oh, Inverted World. It was one of those albums that truly changed the make-up of independent music at the turn of the century, becoming a byword for US indie in recent years.
James Mercer, the primary figure behind the band, has always had a certain way with imagery and songwriting - simultaneously theatrical and down-to-earth. This ability to be both the artist and the everyman has been at the core of his appeal for over a decade now, though The Shins have been largely silent in the five years since 2007’s insomnia-themed, and substantially glossier, Wincing the Night Away.
With Port of Morrow, the studio-polished sheen that many decried with abundance on Wincing is more prominent than ever; that much is indisputable. The key question is whether Mercer’s songwriting is still strong enough to hold up the weight of those hefty production values. The album’s lead single ‘Simple Song’ starts off promising enough; chiming guitars ring and buoyant drums pound gently as Mercer offers a line capable of squaring up to anything he’s previously written: “You feel like an ocean being warmed by the sun.” At this point, you calmly begin to reassure yourself that the band you love so much are back and have returned with aplomb.
However, in an instant ‘Simple Song’ is overrun by a bouncing synth and guitar figure that sounds as if Mercer, while catching up on the sleep he lost due to insomnia, has been dreaming of performing with Van Halen. It’s cheesy but it is rousing, it’s good pop music but is it good art? It’s a question that could easily be asked of Port of Morrow as a whole, the production is beautiful in places but there are moments where even Mercer is eclipsed; he finds himself lost in a sea of studio trickery, desperately searching and looking longingly for that titular port.
Like so much of The Shins’ previous output, Port is at its most effective when it is stripped of the pretense and moves to a simpler beat. ‘September’ is as strong an acoustic-oriented track as Mercer has ever written and could fit comfortably on any of their previous albums (that being said it does sound inexplicably close to Wincing’s ‘Red Rabbits’). ‘Fall Of’ is an equally powerful moment, its resounding groove and off-beat guitar stabs sawing right through those dense layers of sonic sheen and sounding very 70s’ AM radio in the process. Meanwhile ‘Bait and Switch,’ with its stutteringly propulsive rhythms (oxymoron much?), is also up there with The Shins’ best; it’s wonderfully weird and strangely loveable, and avoids the more hackneyed imagery present on the album’s weaker moments.
So, does Mercer ever truly reach that elusive port referred to in the album’s title or is he left adrift, alienated by a studio process seemingly determined to remove him from the listener and that everyman status he’s always coveted? The truth is somewhere in between. Port of Morrow is certainly at its most impactful when it is stripped bare and we’re left with a man and his guitar, but sadly it’s a fleeting occurrence. There’s something beautiful on display here but sometimes it’s just too difficult to make out: you can almost sense the deeply embedded profundity but you can’t quite grasp it and it’s a quietly unsatisfying experience. The Shins first came to mass attention for writing songs imbued with subtle poignancy perfect for life’s everyday beauty, Port of Morrow is the mark of a band becoming more-and-more removed from this, shot into the stratosphere by space age production and rock star egos.