If you’re looking to rekindle your youthful love affair with The Shins’ introspective and angst-riddled pop that burned so brightly in the summer of 2001, their upcoming album Port of Morrow, is not likely to stoke the same flames inspired by Oh, Inverted World or 2003’s Chutes Too Narrow.
Port of Morrow, the Portland-based band’s first album since 2007, comes out today via Aural Apothecary, the personal label of front man and sole-remaining original member James Mercer. Fittingly, Columbia Records will distribute the album named for the real-life port ensconced in the Columbia River Gorge, three hours east of Portland.
Port of Morrow’s musical distance from its predecessors is apparent from the opening notes of its first song, “The Rifles Spiral.” While earlier Shins albums are characterized by their minimal constructions, often centered on an acoustic guitar and deft songwriting, Port of Morrow is a dense and layered album rife with electric guitars, woozy synthesizers, bellowing trumpets, and various other instruments that create a straightforward, yet unmemorable, dance-rock. It’s much more akin to Broken Bells’ upbeat yet unimpressive, electronic-infused offerings (Mercer’s band with Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton) than to The Shins that changed Natalie Portman’s life.
Which perhaps shouldn’t be surprising, since it’s an entirely new cast of musicians, including Modest Mouse drummer Joe Plummer, multi-instrumentalist Richard Swift, Crystal Skulls’ bassist Yuuki Mathews, and guitarist Jessica Dobson (a.k.a. Deep Sea Diver). It also boasts the sonic refinement of Grammy-nominated producer Greg Kurstin, who has worked his studio magic with the likes of Beck, the Flaming Lips, and even Ke$ha and Kylie Minogue.
It’s Kurstins’ influence that may explain Port of Morrow’s heavily produced emphasis on Mercer’s vocals. The new album marks a shift from Mercer’s whimsically uncertain lyrical styling of earlier albums, wherein he tended to hide his voice behind the buoyant interplay of his fellow Shins, to a more measured and mature approach to songwriting that brings James Mercer, the vocalist, into the spotlight—and deservedly so. His lyrics are no longer long-winded, circuitous turns of phrase that take multiple listens to pin down. Instead, Mercer opts for more succinct statements on weightier, if cliché, topics, such as growing up and realizing that love enters and exits our lives without reason. On “40 Mark Strasse” he sings, “every single story is a story about love/both the overflowing cup and the painful lack thereof,” and on “September,” the track stalwart fans of the “classic” Shins are sure to enjoy most, he sings, “It’s not that the darkness can’t touch our lives/I know it will in time.”
Taken as a whole, Port of Morrow‘s well-polished, full-bodied pop is a distinct departure from the jangly, wistful, seeping-up-from-the-basement sound of earlier Shins albums. Perhaps along with the lessons of love and life acquired while growing out of his impetuous youth, Mercer has learned another practical lesson: sometimes making an accessible, mainstream album is the safest bet if you’ve got children to provide for.
Watch the band live at NYC’s Le Poisson Rouge at NPR Music.