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Album Review
Port of Morrow

Port of Morrow
by The Shins

Columbia/Sony Music

Review Date
27th March 2012
Reviewed by
Gareth Meade

Five years virtually melt away as Port of Morrow, the new album from The Shins, begins its ascent into nostalgic familiarity. The perennial underdogs practically defined the new musical millennium for a dedicated fan base with their offbeat guitar pop, something that on the surface isn’t lost on this new release. But taking Port of Morrow on face value can prove difficult given all that has occurred in those intervening years since 2007’s Wincing the Night Away, which included James Mercer’s side-project Broken Bells and the complete restructuring of the line-up which has left him as the only original member remaining.

Certainly Port of Morrow clarifies a few things we’ve inherently always known about the band; namely that a song by The Shins is instantly recognisable and also that Mercer is one of the most talented songwriters working today. However while the chords and of course the voice are familiar, the bright and perfectly realised sound is less so. It’s hard to fault the album for its flawless production, but if there is one thing that characterised the band beyond Mercer’s voice, it was that they were okay with their imperfections. With that lost, it’s a greater reminder that now more than ever, The Shins are simply a conduit to James Mercer’s song writing.

No matter how grudging that may make you feel, it’s clear that Mercer is still on top form. As ‘Rifles Spiral’ thumps the album into life, the pace is energetic and captivating, something that continues on ‘Simple Song’, an incessantly familiar tune that Mercer could have written in his sleep. The lyrics seem telling; especially “I know that things can really get rough when you go it alone”, but the song is full of infectious optimism.

More Shins-isms make themselves apparent as the album winds on, including Mercer’s striking falsetto on ‘It’s Only Life’ and his penchant for quirkiness on ‘Bait and Switch’. The acoustic ‘September’ again strips the years back, sounding almost like an outtake from a different era. Where the album does stray from formula, unfamiliar influences like soft rock (‘No Way Down’) and breezy summer pop (‘Fall of ’82’) come to the fore. It’s the kind of thing you’ll either embrace or reject depending on what the 2012 version of The Shins mean to you.

Having something so recognisable also be slightly otherworldly makes it somewhat difficult to give Port of Morrow the benefit of the doubt, even though the songs are still strong. It’s partly because this album didn’t necessarily need to be a new addition to The Shins’ oeuvre as much as Mercer should have been confident enough to go it alone. The title track which closes proceedings gives credence to the idea that Mercer still has new territory to mine which sits outside both The Shins and Broken Bells. Perhaps with this album out of his system, a new direction is exactly where he’ll go.


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