It’s the rule that 80 per cent of what’s written about James Mercer’s The Shins should refer to Natalie Portman’s gushing endorsement in Garden State.
“You gotta hear this one song — it’ll change your life; I swear”,
is what she said in the 2004 film, referring to “New Slang”. But I don’t think The Shins changed too many people’s lives, mainly because Mercer’s creativity seemed to have dried up soon after the release of 2007’s Wincing The Night Away. That album was clearly the work of an auteur and his sometime bandmates—emotionally disenchanted, studio-laden, heavy with storytelling—and the story behind this new comeback album, Port Of Morrow, does little to dispel the prevailing attitude. Very publicly, this time, Mercer shoved away his old band, bringing to bear the idea that they were only ever bit-part players. Very privately, he holed himself up in studios with Greg Kurstin, an old hand who has worked with an array of chart-friendly pop singers, to create a subtle and elegantly understated gem of a record.
The first thing you notice is the production. It’s not showy, or maximalist, but it clearly bears the fingerprints of meticulous digital pristinery, and it’s the one thing I don’t think I like about Port of Morrow. There are too many whooshing noise that grab for your attention, each trying to outdo Nigel Godrich circa OK Computer. The drums are too processed and flat, and make me feel like there aren’t real humans behind them—and this reminds me of Rich Costey at his most interventionist. And when the guitars kick in, as they do on superlative pop rock songs like “No Way Down”, there’s no proper kick to them, because they’ve been pummelled into ubiquity.
But all these gripes don’t quite manage to take away from the album’s numerous strengths. There are still glimpses of The Shins of other albums, noticeably in the acoustic, Hawaiian twang of “September”, which evokes comparison with my favourite song by this outfit, “Young Pilgrims” from Chutes Too Narrow. There’s also the small matter of Mercer’s songcraft, which hasn’t faded one bit; in fact, it’s regained the identity it was in danger of losing on Wincing The Night Away and Broken Bells (the latter being his collaboration with Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton). On “Bait And Switch”, the over-zealous patter of digital percussion complements the sweetly struck guitar chords, while Mercer’s vocals veer between swaying beauty and helium-filled falsetto. Elsewhere, as on “40 Mark Strasse”, the phrasing and chord changes are perfect and gushing. There’s even an anthemic arena rock song, with wailing guitar fills and a name to match: it’s called “Simple Song”.
“Cause every single story is a story about love / Both the overflowing cup and the painful lack thereof”
Mercer also hasn’t lost his way with words. Quotable, repeatable couplets abound: to give just one, in “September”, he offers up, “Love is the ink in the well / When her body writes”. Parsing the oblique references and the well-phrased generalities is no mean feat, but reading between the lines it’s clear Mercer is in a good place. No more insomnia, no more dreams of carving one’s face off to “form a grimacing smile”. Nevertheless, on the final song, the title track, which is a woozy slice of soul, he encapsulates the dichotomy of being perfectly at ease in one’s life, but also contemplating mortality and ugliness, singing:
“I know my place amongst the creatures in the pageant,
And there are flowers in the garbage,
And a skull under your curls.”
In the succinctness of its construction and the comfort it displays, it’s possible to understand why Mercer has settled into the role of a Donald Fagen or an A.C. Newman, crafting polished pop songs that also appeal to the Vanitas crowd. On the mid-tempo chugger “No Way Down”, he bridges this gap, singing, “Apologies to the sick and the young / Get used to the dust in your lungs”. Port Of Morrow came out of nowhere, but the second I knew it existed, I wanted it to be our generation’s Pretzel Logic—a proper life-changer of a record. It isn’t, but that’s not to say Mercer doesn’t have it in him.
Port Of Morrow by The Shins was released in March 2012 on Aural Apothecary.