By The Shins
You have to wonder at what point The Shins stopped being 'The Shins'. There is the argument that right from the start this whole thing has been a James Mercer solo project, deploying a revolving door policy for the musicians that join him, chopping and changing between each album on nothing more than a whim. And hey, why not? The guy formed the original band, he writes the music, has total control. If there's room anywhere for being a complete fascist, then it's in art. If you do start to second-guess and compromise, you end up with something so safe and homogenized that a lot of people will like it, but they won't love it. The Shins' fanbase isn't particularly huge in relation to some other bands, but they're nothing if not devoted. The problem Mercer has had in recent years isn't due to his unwavering pursuit of having everything his way, it's more the fact that it just didn't sound all that fun anymore.
2007's Wincing the Night Away had its moments, but some of the spark had been lost between the release of that record and the Natalie Portman Effect four years prior. The Garden State endorsement seemed to take The Shins to a level of ubiquity they really weren't comfortable with. Wincing and Mercer's low-key Dangermouse collaboration that followed, Broken Bells, came across as a reaction to that. Say what you want about James Mercer, the man knew how to write an anthemic, everyman pop song, so it was a shame to hear such a considered retreat on his part.
It's now been even longer since The Shins' last album, but this time around the hiatus seems to have had the opposite effect. Five years is a long time in any walk of life, but in our frenzied, digital music age, it feels like an eternity. Upon hearing Port of Morrow there are no arguments that any of this time has been wasted. A hunger has been built up inside of James Mercer again, and what feels like the need to prove himself to anyone who doubted that he wasn't still one of the best songwriters in indie-pop today. Port of Morrow is a return to form; it's a very impressive record, one that ties together many of the elements that made The Shins so enjoyable to begin with, without losing sight of the fact that since they've been away, people's musicals tastes and preferences have evolved. The world hasn't put itself on hold for The Shins, yet they've adapted brilliantly.
In a recent Pitchfork interview, Mercer tellingly revealed he was at an incredibly content point in his life: "...I'm not so melancholy lately. I'm real happy. I've been lucky in love and I've got a wonderful kid now and things have been going well." All of this shines through on Port's stronger songs. 'Fall of 82', for instance, is a giddy, trumpet-aided triumph, with a hook that wouldn't look out of place on a Tower of Power record; 'The Rifle's Spiral' is a stomping, frantic opener to rival 'Kissing The Lipless' (that good); whilst 'Simple Song' is just that: nothing more than a big, melodic riff, leading up to a falsetto-flecked, arena-sized chorus. Everything here - as with every other Shins' album - sounds great. The production is clean and polished, but not to the detriment of the songs contained. If anything, such a slick aesthetic only serves to make more considered thoughtful songs such as 'It's Only Life' and the beautiful, nostalgic 'September' sound even better in this context.
Of the many incarnations The Shins have been through over the past decade, everything seems to fit perfectly. The players involved include members from Modest Mouse, Crystal Skulls, and guitarist Jessica Dobson, who has worked with Beck. They all know what they're doing basically, and there's a confidence that comes with it. The more than competent backing, combined with Mercer's songwriting prowess and better-every-time-you-hear-it voice, was always going to result in some quality work. It all ends with the lovely, hazy title track. "But now I recognize dear listeners/ That you were there and so was I" sings Mercer. A rare moment of admittance. For a man so apparently obstinate - a self-confessed auteur - it's nice to think that perhaps he was doing this for us all along. Releasing an album as far-reaching and open-hearted as Port of Morrow is, he's pretty much banged to rights.