There’s something ballsy about naming a piece of music after a place, real or imagined. Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland conjured images of a sexualized psychedelic paradise and Jay-Z’s "Empire State of Mind" has come to define New York City’s persona for a generation. So what was James Mercer, who now more or less constitutes the entirety of The Shins, thinking when he named the band's fourth studio album Port of Morrow? The Port of Morrow is the port authority for Boardman, Ore., and The Shins’ latest album attempts to evoke the collision of antique frontier Americanism and modern industrialization, with varying results.
It's been five years since The Shins last released music with 2007’s Wincing the Night Away. Since then, front man James Mercer has completely overhauled the group’s lineup, casting the new group of musicians as little more than a touring band. The Shins have always been a creative outlet for Mercer primarily, but Port of Morrow finds him executing his vision almost unilaterally, with production help from Greg Kurstin and musical contributions from indie rock figures like Modest Mouse drummer Joe Plummer. The resulting product is one where Mercer’s famous knack for indie pop song craft meshes with dense, but cleanly produced, sonic landscapes. Port of Morrow sounds great, in the most basic sense.
When Mercer’s songwriting is at its best, Port of Morrow is magnificent. "Simple Song," the album’s lead single, exhibits The Shins’ new sound well. The tightly-crafted indie pop gems that populated the band’s debut, Oh, Inverted World, have been blown up to stadium-sized proportions — Kurstin’s work on Foster the People’s Torches clearly played a role here — while still retaining Mercer’s signature lyrical intimacy. True to its name, “Simple Song” is bold and direct. And it rocks.
On Port of Morrow, The Shins also venture into new sonic realms. Mercer’s collaborative work with Danger Mouse in Broken Bells permeates multiple songs on the album, for better and for worse. "It’s Only Life" easily swells from acoustically restrained verses to emotive choruses, smartly incorporating brief guitar solos and Mercer’s excellent vocals along the way. As with most of The Shins’ best work, nostalgia carries the track. When Mercer sings, “I never drank your potion, and I know it breaks your heart,” it’s easy to empathize with him. But on the album’s closer and title track, the ephemeral vocals Mercer perfected with Broken Bells are belabored for nearly six minutes — an eternity for a Shins song.
"For a Fool" is Port of Morrow’s best track because it retains the simple focus of The Shins’ finest album, Chutes Too Narrow, while using mildly expanded instrumentation to create a sonic gloss. Mercer croons like an in-his-prime Elton John and the blunt regret of lines like “You’re stuck in my head, like a terrible song” reestablish the singer as one of indie music’s best lyricists. Port of Morrow's highlights are simplistic in a way that paints a picture of basic American feelings and desires. "September" and "40 Mark Strasse" use nostalgia in the same way Neil Young or Joni Mitchell did, but with a slight modern sheen. When Mercer opts for complicated arrangements his songs sound forced and unnaturally crowded, not unlike the Port of Morrow he envisions.
But all of Port of Morrow’s sonic experimentation leaves the broader question: Were the changes worth it? The simple answer is that, no, they weren’t. Classic Shins songs like "Caring Is Creepy" or "Australia" were dramatic and satisfying without trying to be big. Their quaint and intimate nature are what made them relatable to large audiences. James Mercer is an indie rock luminary because he proved music doesn’t have to sound grandiose to be emotionally poignant. When Natalie Portman listened to “New Slang” all those years ago, she was listening to a new form of indie currency where people waved their lighters at concerts to simple music they could connect with. Port of Morrow is a pleasing album with a nice sound, but not one that holds the same depth or power as The Shins’ earlier work.
Final Grade: B-