Port of Morrow by The Shins (2012) – Music Review
Port of Morrow is the latest album from Albuquerque’s alternative pop marvels, The Shins. It has been five years since The Shins released their last full length album, the mesmerising and eclectic Wincing the Night Away (2007). With Port of Morrow, we’re in more mainstream indie pop territory with an album that neither surprises too much nor overly disappoints.
While it contains a bit of overall variety, Port of Morrow is very much an album of the same laid back, melancholic sweetness we’ve come to expect from The Shins. Not saying this expectation is a bad thing by any means – when you’re onto a good thing….
That said, there’s an overall sense of studio gleam here. Gone are the tormented jangles of their angsty debut Oh, Inverted World (2001), the album that cemented the band as definers of 2000s indie rock. Again, not a bad thing but something that sticks out as a marked departure from what me have come to except from The Shins.
There’s a greater sense of maturity in this album than what we’ve heard on previous releases. Perhaps it represents a band settling into their mainstream popularity (thank you, Garden State), with a more polished, perhaps manufactured feel. Perhaps it’s a more personal direction of singer, songwriter and guitarist, James Mercer. Perhaps a symptom of a shifted line up as the first Shins album without keyboard player Marty Crandall and drummer Jesse Sandova, or bassist Dave Hernandez? Perhaps it’s all of the above?
It seems also that there’s a stronger sense of optimism across the board than we heard on earlier works, especially from Oh, Inverted World. There is still a hint of that low down as lyrics wander through the usual indie pop territories of love gone wrong and existential confusion. Maybe this is a positive nihilism? An optimistic sadness? Maybe Mercer’s just got a lot more figured out these days.
The album opens with ‘The Rifle’s Spiral’, an eclectic but tight mix of electronic tinged, upbeat and driving rock, and definitely the overall strongest track in the list.
Track 2, ‘Simple Song’ has a bit of a 1960s and 1970s pop-rock feeling going on (a feeling that touches numerous points on the album) and also sounds something like the pure pop indie offerings from someone like Brendan Benson. Comparisons to Brendan Benson can also be applied to later tracks ‘No Way Down’ and ‘For A Fool.’ ‘Bait and Switch’, with its suggestions of 1970s psychedelic pop is definitely the album’s indie pop peak and a fun thing to listen to.
The highly polished, slower, more ballad type tracks, ‘It’s Only Life’, and ’40 Mark Strasse’ are the clearest signs of the maturation mentioned earlier. Both are acoustic driven, really non-confronting alternative rock by sound but have lyrical depth and sensitivity. ‘September’ is another airy slow, acoustic track with a little country slide effect.
The final and title track, ‘Port of the Morrow’ sticks out as a bit of an oddity here but is definitely a strong point of the album and the most interesting track to listen to. Electronic twangs wash around with some bluesy bass and Mercer’s falsetto giving the song a bit of a indie rock cabaret feel, if such a thing is possible. I want to draw a John Lennon comparison here, especially with the vocal stylings. It’s a small one, but it’s there.
From a band that attained an instant likeability, if not lovability from their initial releases, Oh, Inverted World and Chutes to Narrow (2003) comes an album that on the first few spins drew a largely mediocre, underwhelmed response from this listener at least. A few more spins and the messages start to sink in, the melodies start to mesh and this slightly older, slightly more mature band starts to get its message across. Port of Morrow won’t blow your mind or challenge any musical boundaries, but it will provide 40 minutes of decent indie pop, even if its from a band we’ve heard do better.
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