After a five-year break and a bandmate shuffle, The Shins sound recharged and revitalized on their newest release Port of Morrow. The band has rediscovered its playful side with a fresh batch of songs that resemble their first two full-lengths, Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow, but offer a new spin with a slower, more methodical approach.
Port of Morrow’s opening track, “The Rifle’s Spiral,” is a continuation of the dark, moody tone established on 2007’s Wincing The Night Away and Mercer’s recent side project Broken Bells. The song’s lyric sheet demonstrates that Mercer can still be as abstract and inscrutable as ever, leaving much of the first track’s meaning up to interpretation. Fans who favor the band’s earlier works may be wary of this new sound, but their reservations are assuaged as “Rifle’s Spiral” segues into the album’s lead single, “Simple Song.”
“Simple Song” is most effective in the way it lives up to its name. There are no tricks, just simple melodic indie pop with an extremely efficient hook that ranks among the best in the group’s entire catalog. The band’s sound from new members Richard Swift, Jessica Dobson, Crystal Skulls’ Yuuki Matthews and Modest Mouse drummer Joe Plummer is refined with their most polished production value to date.
Known for their bouncy, mid-tempo jams, Mercer and his mates prove they can handle the slow jam as well. “It’s Only Life” and “For a Fool” are both album highlights that reflect on failed loves. Such simple, straightforward proclamations are a contrast from The Shins’ trademarked political and societal themes on previous songs like “So Says I,” “Saint Simon” and “Sleeping Lessons.” By going back to the basics with his lyrics, Mercer should be able to bring back many former Shins fans, who may have been disillusioned with the moody haze of the band’s last album.
The biggest surprise on Port of Morrow is the jazz-infused shuffle “Fall of ’82,” which sees The Shins experimenting with horns for the first time with major success. Big band instrumentations can sound like a cheap gimmick if they’re not applied correctly, but The Shins accentuate the power of the trumpets and saxophones like jazz pros.
It’s hard to fathom this band making such a triumphant return after so much time off — especially after the dismissal of three original members in 2009. However, Mercer’s time with musician/producer Danger Mouse on the exceedingly successful Broken Bells project seems to have injected new passion into both the frontman’s vocals and songwriting craft. With Port of Morrow, The Shins and their new ensemble have repositioned themselves to be among indie rock’s most revered bands once again.
– Matt Kelly