The Shins' new album, Port of Morrow, draws its title from an actual port in the band's adopted home state of Oregon, and a consultation of Google Earth's overhead view reveals an oddly mundane little outpost nestled in the spectacular scenery of the Columbia River. Part of the Shins' mystique has been their ability to conjure intensely evocative mental images out of the sparsest and most minute of details, so having such specific geographical data gives the impression that some of that mystique has been drained away. Is the actual Port of Morrow in any way remarkable, despite its beautiful surroundings?
Port of Morrow is the Shins' first album after a five-year hiatus, but it was no ordinary hiatus for the band. Frontman James Mercer is the only remaining original member of the band; two founding members, keyboardist Marty Crandall and drummer Jesse Sandoval, were essentially sacked from the band in 2009 (Mercer has diplomatically emphasized that his ideas for the band simply required different personnel). Guitarist Dave Hernandez departed soon after, and the Shins roster was re-stocked with an assembly of musicians from the Pacific Northwest, including multi-instrumentalist Richard Swift and Modest Mouse drummer Joe Plummer. Mercer's autonomous control of the band is nothing new in the annals of rock history, but it still feels a bit weird for him to retain the band's collective identity vis-a-vis the name.
Such changes would be less conspicuous if the music felt like a natural continuation of the Shins' musical universe, which blends (blended?) baroque melodies with Mercer's cryptic lyrics. Port of Morrow feels fleshed out at every turn, as if no rock of instrumentation has been left unturned, due in no small part to Greg Kurstin's production work. A typical Greg Kurstin recording is famous for a multitude of hooks, doled out with all the bells and whistles that a Hollywood studio can buy. All of these songs feel like studio creations, with new and unique bits of instrumentation constantly entering the frame; some serve as one-off augmentations, while others slowly build into a song's main hook. Everything is very pretty, meticulous, and precise, yet there is a decided lack of an organic presence. There's no denying that it's ear candy, and the record is definitely enjoyable and goes down easy, but the hooks feel like decoration, rather than an integral element of the songs. It is thus a key flaw that a band who has built its reputation on invoking emotional reactions fails to strike up any chords that touch the soul.
This may be the Shins' most radio-friendly album yet. "No Way Down" and "Bait and Switch" are instant earworms, as well as opening track "The Rifles Spiral," which coasts along on a recurring piano lick. "Fall of '82" even features a trumpet solo, while "September" comes close to recalling the sound of some of the classic Shins acoustic songs. Producer Greg Kurstin's presence is mostly unobtrusive, although he does bring a few of his sonic signatures to the table (i.e., whistling, whooshing keyboards, electronic-sounding drums). Mercer's lyrics are as oblique as ever, and as with all of his work, these songs will only reveal their true meanings over time, if ever. But it's not difficult to pick up on the self-referential nature of lead single "Simple Song," in which Mercer sings, "I know that things can really get rough when you go it alone," before offering words of encouragement, uplift and love. He feels more confident and secure in his love life than ever, but might there be any self-doubting about the way he's handled his professional situation?
The spine (or metadata) of Port of Morrow will eternally mark that it is a Shins album, but there's a thought experiment that might help bring the album into proper context. For all intents and purposes, the Shins as we know them stopped existing in 2009, so everything since has been James Mercer's own ideas. It's convenient, therefore, to think of his Broken Bells project as a Danger Mouse-produced (and collaborated) first solo work, while Port of Morrow is his Greg Kurstin-produced followup. Mercer is a vital and interesting voice in the alternative rock community, and his highly-regarded output has provided great value to countless music fans, but he's basically going it alone at this point. Mercer and Port of Morrow may resonate, but the Shins as we once knew them are a slowly fading echo against the recesses of our memories.