It’s been five years since the last Shins album. Five years. I have never felt more anxiety over the release of an album since I’ve been been listening to music. While the Broken Bells experiment was a brief reprieve from the wait, and the album was fine, it still wasn’t a real Shins album. And of course, after a side project, there’s always the worry that whatever comes next from a band will be so far away and experimental it can scarcely be called a real release by the band.
James Mercer, why do I doubt you? I struggle sometimes with a band maturing, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that on the first listen, all I could think was, “I just don’t know about this.” It might be an album that grows on you — it did on me. The fact remains, there will be a lot of Shins fans that don’t like this album.
As a whole, Port of Morrow doesn’t travel in a specific direction. It’s not uphill or downhill, forward or backward. There’s plenty of the traditional elements from Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow, there’s some of the edginess from Wincing The Night Away and even some of the electro-savvy from Broken Bells (listen to the title track) — but if there’s one thing Mercer does well, it’s evolve. It’s not changing for the sake of changing, but rather changing for the sake of creating better, fresher music. Ideas can become stale and a band can become stoic, which might have been the thought process when Mercer gutted and rebuilt the band. The only thing missing is that rough-around-the-edges sound, which seems to have been rounded off.
The album starts with a pair of gritty tunes that have an air of familiarity, “The Rifle’s Spiral” and first single “Simple Song.” It will lull you into a sense of security, into expecting this sound from the entirety of the album. But “It’s Only Life” changes things up. It moves along in a lolling beat and the lyrics hold much more sentimentality than we might expect from Mercer’s often nonsensical words.
There’s also an air of nostalgia here. “September” is a lovely and simple acoustically strummed ballad with some Hawaiian-esque pedal steel guitar. “No Way Down” takes almost everything The Shins have done on previous albums, combines the best parts, and relaxes it. “Taken For a Fool” quickly becomes a standout: it’s highly wistful and well built, from the guitar hook to Mercer’s melancholy singing. “Fall of ‘82” is just a fun song to listen to, with an almost beach-funk element and even some good early 80s rock to be found.
For better or worse, the album is what it is and is unapologetic about it. It’s obvious that Mercer feels at home on every tune and isn’t reaching completely out of his comfort zone. The Shins will keep being what they are: a band that continues to be inventive without being quite revolutionary.