The Shins: Port of Morrow
Port of Morrow
The first thing to know about Port of Morrow is that it's not a Shins album, at least not really. Since it's inception, The Shins has been, at heart, a vehicle for James Mercer's songwriting, with the rest of the band serving as more or less a supporting cast, along to help realize Mercer's vision. And if that is the way you have always thought about The Shins, then Port of Morrow is really no departure from the previous three albums released under the name. If, however, you have a different conception of the group, then this album is a whole new beast.
The entire band known as The Shins (at least, on the "group's" first three albums), save Mercer himself, is gone. Instead, producer Greg Kurstin (of The Bird and The Bee) is taking over much of the backing work. Kurstin previously worked with Mercer and Danger Mouse in the group Broken Bells, and enough of that previous collaboration leaks in here to make Port of Morrow's connection to previous work by The Shins tenuous at best (missing here, obviously, is the Danger Mouse element, which is certainly notable. To be clear, I don't mean to imply that this album sounds like Broken Bells, so much as to say it sounds markedly different from previous efforts by The Shins). The sound here is blown out, which adds a sense of grandeur to the songs, even if it loses some of the intimate quality of The Shins older albums in the process.
All of this is a longwinded way to get around to the point, as I see it, of Port of Morrow: James Mercer , clearly hoping to evolve and push his music in new and different directions, has made a solo album and for some reason, whether for marketing purposes or out of a sense of nostalgia, has slapped the name The Shins on the front of it. Ultimately, The Shins has always been a Mercer project, and it might be a little unfair to spend time parsing out whether this is technically a Shins album; The Shins has always been Mercer's show, this just happens to be slightly truer now. I should make clear that I discuss this album's tenuous connection to the group known as The Shins less as a mark of quality and more because I think it says something about what Mercer was attempting here, and what I think he accomplished.
Port of Morrow is, without doubt, a great departure for Mercer, and I think a capable and occasionally transcendent one. By tying this to his past, via moniker, if little else (only "September" here sounds much like what The Shins used to do), Mercer is implicitly calling attention to how far he's come since 2007's Wincing the Night Away. This may be a mistake in the long run, as a lot of critics and fans (myself included) are likely to think about the album in terms of what it isn't as much as they think about what it is. And what it is is a very solid, catchy indie-pop album, with a scale and scope Mercer has rarely attempted before. The album is still full of bright, catchy pop-rock ditties like opener "The Rifle's Spiral" and lead single "Simple Song" (which seems to address Mercer's worries about his evolution, at least obliquely, when he sings that "things can really get rough when you go it alone.), but there are also some quieter tracks, like the break-up ballad "For a Fool". For every song on which Mercer seems to be moving forward, there is a song that seems to be looking back, thematically if not sonically. "Fall of '82" is nothing if not wistfully nostalgic, and yet it captures that feel in a way that sounds completely unlike anything The Shins have done before.
Perhaps the title track says it all. It's jazz-influenced, slightly psychedelic, and a showcase for Mercer's falsetto. Played out of context, it sounds nothing at all like a song by The Shins. If that's something that will bother you, my guess is Port of Morrow is not your cup of tea. This is the sort of evolution that can break the spell for a lot of fans, and I'm sure detractors will be quick to point out, as I did above, that this isn't even really The Shins. It seems to me, though, that it doesn't matter. Good music is good music, and if Mercer keeps making albums this fascinating, catchy, and finally fulfilling as this, he can call himself whatever he'd like.