All hyperbole aside, that scene from Garden State that everyone remembers doesn’t seem so crazy to me. It’s doubtful “New Slang” — or any Shins song for that matter — has ever really changed a person’s life besides James Mercer’s own. But anyone who has ever loved a Shins song is familiar with that moment when something opens up inside of you and everything becomes right. For me, it happens a minute into Chutes Too Narrow’s “Saint Simon” when Mercer’s lilting, descending vocal is joined by those sighing strings. He sings, “Mercy’s eyes are blue/ when she places them in front of you/ nothing holds a Roman candle to/ the solemn warmth you feel inside.” With those two words — solemn warmth — Mercer describes the precise way I feel when hear the lyric. And the way I feel about my favorite Shins songs.
The Shins’ improbable mid-2000s dominance slightly baffles me nonetheless. Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow are both charming and mostly terrific albums. At their best, they are sterling showcases of Mercer’s phenomenal pop craftsmanship. However, some of their acoustic weepies have lost their charm over time. For me, their inherent blandness has intensified with age. Wincing the Night Away may lack the wiry scrappiness of its predecessors, but its broader scope holds up remarkably well (“Phantom Limb” especially so). Still, I’m sure even Natalie Portman was just a bit disappointed by the album at the time.
Oh, Inverted World is now tweenage. Chutes Too Narrow turns ten next year. Wincing the Night Away is old enough to start kindergarten. The last we’ve heard from Mercer was via Broken Bells, his interesting but ultimately unsatisfying collaboration with Danger Mouse. It became unclear whether a new Shins album was long overdue or better left unmade. The triumphant, confetti-cannon fire of “Simple Song” eased my doubts when I first heard it earlier this year. Port of Morrow has now obliterated them. Welcome back, James.
Port of Morrow is the fourth and most potent Shins album. These songs are nearly all chorus, big and upfront where his first two records were twisty and plucky. James Mercer has overhauled The Shins’ lineup, but the switcheroo goes unnoticed. Mercer, as always, is The Shins’ central creative force. His voice is as plaintive and captivating as ever; his lyrics are still literate, overstuffed with syllables; and his melodic approach, those ups and downs and sideway turns that are unmistakably his, is in top form. He employs recognizable imagery: nautical references, kites, and gold teeth all return as callbacks.
The familiar territory ends there. Port of Morrow is unabashedly straightforward, boldly veering into the dangerous waters of cheese rock, for better or worse. “It’s Only Life” and “For a Fool” is Lennon-McCartney as remembered by the Gallagher brothers. “The Rifle’s Spiral” and “Bait and Switch” swing like exuberant AM pop. The protest pop of “No Way Down” is no less fizzy. The closest Mercer gets to resting on his laurels is on the wistful, slide-guitar laden “September.” Consequently, it is my least favorite track.
“Simple Song” is, of course, anything but. An anthem of self doubt that practically detonates with confidence, “Simple Song” is James Mercer at his finest. The song crests with swelling synths, chiming guitars, piano arpeggios, and crashing snare hits. “You sure must be strong,” he sings as if he were a late-period Michael Stipe, “and you feel like an ocean being warmed by the sun.” Funny. That’s exactly what I feel again. Warmth. The familiar and the new glow with equal luminance on Port of Morrow. No, The Shins won’t change your life. They can make it a little better though.