The Shins' James Mercer is rarely an adventurous songwriter. His indie-pop melodies often resemble Russian dolls: They appear to be intricate, but once you peel back each layer, you're left with an incredibly intricate and detailed series of colors and designs that fail to convey true and lasting emotional arcs. Mercer's simplicity was the house that Zach Braff admired when he used "New Slang" for his movie Garden State, but the Shins that recorded the "band that will change your life" records--2001's Oh, Inverted World and 2003's Chutes Too Narrow-- broke up a few years ago. The eight-person band that recorded the new Port of Morrow are a very different creature.
Despite the new lineup, Port of Morrow doesn't sound all that different from the Shins' last full-length, the Grammy-nominated Wincing the Night Away. That release was largely put to tape by Mercer alone, just as it was done when he first developed the band Flake Music to distract him from his Albuquerque, NM, day job during the '90s. The difference between Wincing and this though, is that this MOR set of ten songs is produced with an extra amount of sheen from Kylie Minogue and Lily Allen sound man Greg Kurstin. But all that polish doesn't distract from the back-half's midtempo malaise and general lack of lyrical ingenuity or bite.
Naturally, Mercer charges into an uphill battle with his best tracks. The first five songs would make a pretty solid EP. Opener "The Rifle's Spiral" showcases one of those effervescent Shins melodies that shoots into the air and dissolves whenever it makes impact. Every rock element is just so and the boppy chorus is just asking to be belted out while in a car. Lead single, "The Simple Song," is the true standout here, and the case of a band serving up exactly what their fanbase expects them to give them. The buzzing synth and plangent vocals bounce along like you expect a bouncing ball to follow the lyrics during a music video. The Shins' typical melancholy starts to drag down the proceedings a little with the celestial strummer "It's Only Life." Even such a wistful tune (see: the guitar solo at the halfway mark) has a hopeful edge to it. Mercer sings about figuring this thing called life out with his companion at his side.
I say this is an "optimistic" release, but the back-half of Port of Morrow is kind of mopey after the aptly titled (and highly Pro-Tooled) "Bait and Switch." Before that, Mercer unfurls an acoustic stunner called "September," which sounds like it was written in Hawaii. It's a dreamy tune that harkens back to those first two Shins albums. The lyrics are tailor-made for making babies and it's one of the last solid cuts on The Shins' fourth effort.
The results are hit or miss going forward. "Fall of '82"'s brass parts are a nice change of pace, but the lovey dovey lyrics can be somewhat treacly. "For a Fool" is a languid stroll through chamber-soul theatrics and "40 Mark Strasse" is all velvety new wave with no vigor. Mercer aims for spookiness and only achieves tedium as he sings about his female protagonist having the "heart of a dove." His metaphors don't make a whole lot of sense whether he's singing about himself or through the eyes of a character.
The Shins as we knew them are no more, and though Port of Morrow introduces some interesting new angles to view Mercer's songcraft, most of them won't start any new indie revolutions. The Shins' latest is a "nice" album; it won't be blowing down anyone's doors. The title of the album is apt: a port is a place for resting after a long journey. But scurrying on the deck of your ship won't change the fact that you're firmly anchored down.