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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Shins’ ‘Morrow’ shows Mercer’s solo strength

    When The Shins stepped down as indie’s leading act after the release of their third album Wincing the Night Away, fans kept their “Garden State” DVDs on heavy rotation and pored over the band’s limited discography in the hopes that frontman James Mercer and the rest of the band would soon return.

    Five years, one side project, and more than a few replaced bandmates later, The Shins are back with Port of Morrow, an album of definitive highs and lows that explores a more thoroughly mainstream territory than their previous efforts.

    Overflowing with catchy guitar grooves, driving bass lines and pop-electronica instrumentals, there’s a lot here to get lost in. Yet, Mercer’s soaring vocals act as an anchor in what is, at first listen, disorienting lack of the group’s characteristic eccentricity.

    Not so fresh off his side project, Broken Bells, Mercer somewhat begrudgingly returned to work with The Shins, newly outfitted with bass player Eric D. Johnson of Fruit Bats and drummer Joe Plummer of Modest Mouse, to name a few.

    Mercer co-produced, wrote and recorded every song, and on the seamlessly arranged first single “Simple Song,” sings, “I know that things can really get tough when you go it alone.” But, to be honest, Mercer is going it alone. His new bandmates, though talented in their own right, are ultimately dispensable. This highlights the fact that Port of Morrow is really the work of a single artist, whose sound has evolved from the cryptic lyricism of earlier days into a scope decidedly bigger, louder and more transparent.

    While previous albums were essentially a melodic grab bag, much of Port of Morrow seems to converge toward a common denominator. A stylized, overtly poppy influence is present throughout, ushering in almost every other song with a slick, almost too seamless transition that often threatens to overpower Mercer’s unparalleled vocal work.

    The distracting new-wave progression in “No Way Down” nearly overpowers a soaring chorus, while the nostalgic narrative in “Fall of ‘82” competes with overly ambitious horn instrumentation.

    Horns? In a Shins song? By relying on these tired tricks of the trade, Port of Morrow is deeply intent on making a grand impression, which couldn’t be further away from the effortless weirdness of Oh, Inverted World, or the dark, tongue-in-cheek lyricism of Wincing the Night Away.

    The album’s low point, “It’s Only Life,” is rife with lyrical cliches, ready-made for the post-breakup montage of a bad romantic comedy: “The wheel’s in motion, I never drank your potion and I know it breaks your heart.” A return to Mercer’s eclectic and often indiscernible lyrics has never been more needed than here.

    But tracks like the beautifully subdued ballad “September” make up for the low points in Port of Morrow by returning to a familiar dialed-down sincerity, and blending tinges of country and folk with loopy instrumentals. “Love is the ink in the well when her body writes,” Mercer sings, turning a simple ode to his wife into a love poem for the ages. The bare-bones “For a Fool” is another winner, with a chorus that wouldn’t seem unwelcome in a Buddy Holly record.

    In the end, though, the only song that explores any unfamiliar territory is the title track, which is the last on the album. And oddly enough, it’s the only song that seems truly reminiscent of the “old” Shins. Atmospheric and perfectly bizarre, Mercer’s falsetto is a stretch that just works.

    It’s ironic that The Shins opted out of this type of sound, their true comfort zone, to venture toward an accessibility that feels a little forced.

    But even at their most mediocre, The Shins (read: Mercer) remain leaps and bounds ahead of indie acts that falter at the genre’s foundational level: songwriting, reinforced by powerful vocals. This is where Mercer excels, and Port of Morrow has plenty to offer to fans who have waited five long years to experience a new edition of the group’s unmistakable sound. It just requires a close and patient listen.

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