Strangely, but perhaps predictably, James Mercer’s recent career moves seem indicative of diva behavior — signing with Columbia, dismissing his longtime bandmates and making The Shins something of a solo venture while exploring outside projects like Broken Bells. All of that plus a five-year gap since the last Shins album have intensified the scrutiny of the long-awaited Port of Morrow.
Perhaps the most marked difference between the old collective Shins and the new solo-centric Shins is Mercer’s place in the mix. On the first three albums, his keening voice and hallucinogenic lyrical constructs were sublimated into the music, while 2007’s Wincing the Night Away found him rising above the music’s sonic profile (Michael Stipe followed a similar path on REM’s upward spiral).
Mercer’s process is complete on Port of Morrow, as his vocals ring with confidence and clarity even as his lyrics still inspire some allusory head scratching.
“Simple Song” lives up to its title by stripping The Shins’ melodic and lyrical complexity to its basic elements, with the chorus serving as a possible manifesto for the newly liberated Mercer (“I know that things can really get rough, when you go it alone/Don’t go thinking you gotta be tough, and play like a stone/Could be there’s nothing else in our lives so critical, as this little home”). There are moments that hearken back to The Shins of old with the obvious new tweaks and a few new wrinkles (the Samba-flecked “Bait and Switch,” the straightforward Indie Pop bristle of “No Way Down,” the rootsy reverb of “For a Fool”).
For fans who have fallen helplessly in love with The Shins’ sonic atmospherics and delightfully indecipherable wordplay, Port of Morrow may be confoundingly understandable. Still, like every Shins album to date, Port of Morrow’s greatest rewards are revealed through prolonged exposure. Grade: B-