Honestly, James Mercer didn’t really need to switch things up. After all, his band The Shins has remained an indie-pop staple since 2001 debut Oh, Inverted World; subsequent records did nothing to slow the band’s forward momentum, to the point where The Shins actually became synonymous with indie’s prominence in the Pitchfork decade. They were the chiming acoustics and chirping harmonies scoring all of your favorite semi-independent dramadies; for better or for worse, Natalie Portman and her big-ass headphones made them iconic. And deservedly so; of all the universally-loved indie collectives to come down the pike in the last decade, they exhibited a well-oiled synergy between the autumnal acoustic folk many listeners have come to associate with the indie-pop genre and the earworm, summery melodies of pure pop.
In the five years since 2007’s sublimely catchy Wincing the Night Away – the last time we got a proper Shins record – Mercer has lent his crisp tenor to a handful of crackerjack latter-day Modest Mouse tracks and collaborated with everyone’s favorite producer Danger Mouse for a new project, Broken Bells. Perhaps predictably, Broken Bells was heavy on atmosphere and electronics; perhaps surprisingly, it was light on hooks, arguably the feather in Mercer’s cap since jump street. And since Mercer – who, for all intents and purposes, is The Shins, like it or not – has since cleaned house, dissolving The Shins’ original lineup in favor of an eclectic bevy of backup players, new album Port of Morrow positions itself squarely between the singer’s two prominent projects: The Shins’ tasty hooks are there, but Mercer embraces many of the atmospheric flourishes of his sidepiece. The result is, more or less, what we expect from a new Shins record: namely, it’s very good.
Port of Morrow‘s opening track illustrates the stylistic shift: buoyant, ratchet-tight kick drums signal another pop gem, but the chilly Depeche Mode synths and swirling, spacey atmospherics of “The Rifle’s Spiral” make the track sound like an outtake from the back half of another Danger Mouse-related record, Gnarls Barkley’s St. Elsewhere. It’s a terrific opener – I’m reminded, briefly, of historically-bubbly pop tunesmiths Guster opening their own late-period record Ganging Up on the Sun with shimmery, moonlit keyboards on the pensive “Lightning Rod” – but not necessarily indicative of the record as a whole. Second track and first single “Simple Song” picks up where Wincing single “Turn On Me” left off, and it’s the sort of thing The Shins do best; the melody is immediate and gratifying, wispy acoustic guitars and deft piano lines dancing just under the melody, and if your first inclination is to sing about “the most ridiculous, repulsive games” in tribute to the tune’s more famous cousin, give it a few spins to grow into its own.
The question, of course, has been raised: why would Mercer dispense of his Shins cohorts and release a Shins album instead of calling a spade a spade and finally releasing a proper solo record? That’s the artist’s question to answer, of course, but it’s easy to see why Port of Morrow bears The Shins’ moniker (beyond, of course, the cynical explanation that more people are likely to buy a Shins album); the jumpy, spindly “Bait and Switch” slides comfortably next to band classics “Kissing the Lipless” and “Phantom Limb” in mood and execution, and “It’s Only Life” strings Mercer’s fluid and creamy falsetto on the kind of loping, Sgt. Peppers-era McCartney rhythm that Shins circa 2001 would soil their cargo shorts over. (Also: reports that “It’s Only Life” is a solid 10 on the sliding Bret Michaels Scale of Lyrical Dullness have been greatly exaggerated, as a few stray platitudes in the chorus are granted weight and sincerity by Mercer’s candid, nuanced delivery.)
Port of Morrow isn’t all Shins-by-numbers: take “Fall of ’82”, which mines a previously unexplored 70’s rock vein to great effect, recalling the vaguely calypso carnival rhythms of Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good”, a warm horn section lurking in the background throughout, or “40 Mark Strasse”, a smooth Hall & Oates slow jam that suggests there’s a career for Mercer down the road as an emotionally effective blue-eyed soul man. And yet, “September” feels instantly familiar, a sweetly nostalgic acoustic number that borrows the reverbed, multi-tracked harmonies of new darlings Fleet Foxes; it harkens all the way back to album number one, an Oh, Inverted World track through and through.
By the time the mysterious, spaced-out Pink Floyd keys on the title track provide a tasty callback to the brightest Broken Bells moments, it’s clear that these new Shins aren’t as immediately recognizable as the band we all fell in love with; but all the synthesizers in the world can’t dilute the power of Mercer’s songwriting prowess, as robust and concise as its ever been. I’ll say it once more: James Mercer truly is The Shins, and this is Mercer at his most forward-thinking and interesting. It’s early in the year, but The Shins have already set the bar pretty high for their genre. Then again, considering their track record, I suppose that’s not surprising.