don't you tell me how i feel.

‘Port’ reform by Steele
April 9, 2012, 6:56 am
Filed under: band breakup, nerdy shit, New music, Shit I love

Early on in Port of Morrow, the often beautiful but surprisingly uneven new record by The Shins, frontman James Mercer sings, “I know that things can really get rough when you go it alone.” It’s an interesting observation, coming from a guy who recorded most of the band’s last album by himself, then fired his bandmates and basically turned The Shins into a one-man show. This album was made with musicians who have their names listed next to his, but make no mistake – like Nine Inch Nails for the Portland set, The Shins IS James Mercer.

And if the record’s tone is any indication, Mercer seems most comfortable with this arrangement. Port of Morrow is certainly the sunniest album under the Shins name; there are only hints of the deep melancholy and wistfulness that seem to inform most of the older songs. Lyrically, it’s far more personal than anything Mercer has ever done. But if the mood feels like a striking departure, the songs feel safer than usual. Mercer’s musical and lyrical ambitions have grown exponentially with each album – 2007’s Wincing the Night Away, in particular, seemed poised to shoot off in a lot of exciting directions, with nods to punk, hip-hop and pop. In that sense, Port of Morrow feels like a step back; musically, there are a lot of 1970s influences at play, and a handful of songs (“Bait and Switch,” “It’s Only Life”) feel almost predictable in their chord progressions. To a megafan like me, this is unsettling.

The influence of super-producer Danger Mouse (who Mercer has recorded with as the duo Broken Bells) also can be felt strongly here. He and Mercer have inspired each other in terrific ways; Danger Mouse’s sprawling style is a good counterpoint to Mercer’s control-freakness. Their collaboration seems to make less sense in a Shins context, though, and there are songs on Port of Morrow that feel a little cluttered with too much sound.

But when Mercer’s musical sense of urgency is switched on, he reaches gorgeous highs. Much of the album has a propulsive, triumphant feeling. Opening track “The Rifle’s Spiral” is as driving, haunting and effective as anything he’s ever done. “No Way Down” showcases Mercer’s effortless vocal style to great effect. “40 Mark Strasse” is sweet, nostalgic and lilting, and the lovely “Port of Morrow” manages to remind me of Portishead. Never a bad thing!

Then there’s “Simple Song,” which is basically a rich, shimmering sonic orgasm, produced to perfection within an inch of its life. It’s irresistible, and I adore it. But I also recognize there’s something a little clinical about polishing every rough edge out of a song. Some early Shins songs abounded with gleeful messiness, moments where it sounded as though Mercer and his bandmates were teetering on the edge of losing control over the music. It was that subtle balance that made me fall in love with Mercer’s elegant, thoughtful songwriting. Looking forward, I’m hoping it’s a balance he can regain.


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