Review: The Shins – Port of Morrow
Published on March 31st, 2012 | Jonny Abrams
Since The Shins last released an album, the following things have happened…
…just kidding. I’m not going to do that. Instead, here is a potted history of my own personal experiences with the Albuquerque popsmiths’ recorded output:
2001 debut Oh, Inverted World was certainly enjoyed without ever quite making the same impact that it would seem to have made on many others; 2003 follow-up Chutes Too Narrow was fallen head-over-heels in love with from the moment eyes were laid upon the album artwork – you know when you just know? – and continues to be a favourite to this day; while 2007’s Wincing the Night Away registered at first as a reasonably strong yet self-consciously ‘experimental’ set of songs, only to have its status upgraded to ‘pretty damn good, actually’ having recently been dug out again in anticipation of album four landing.
Let’s call that eight-and-a-half, nine-and-a-half and eight quails out of ten respectively. So, how does Port of Morrow square up to its varying-degrees-of-excellent predecessors? Well, opener “The Rifle’s Spiral” pairs majestically, mysteriously conjured melody with a quick-step bouncing rhythm in a way that’s so unmistakably Shins-ian. A comforting way to re-submerge oneself back into the dreamy surf-pop world of James Mercer and co.
“The Rifle’s Spiral” lays bear a form of experimentation that differs from the genre-hopping of Wincing the Night Away; rather, Port of Morrow sees The Shins broadening their horizons in terms of dynamics, arrangements and a full, busy mix. Perhaps ‘sonic advancement’ would be a more apt term than ‘experimentation’. “You’re not invisible now / You just don’t exist” sings Mercer in his familiar Brian Wilson falsetto, reminding us that for all his songwriting guile, he also has a way with strangely memorable lyrics.
Moving swiftly on, “Simple Song” is imbued with the kind of exotic echo chamber feel that could have seen it fit snugly onto Wincing the Night Away, but this is tempered with the added dimension of a squealing guitar line that triumphantly manages to sound like both Ronald Jones [The Flaming Lips’ lead guitarist between 1991 and 1996] and Graham Coxon’s chorus-capping riff from lost Blur classic “M.O.R.”. So far, so solid.
“It’s Only Life” is the first track to really trouble me. Now this is a simple song; a festive kind of stomp-lite (stomplet?) that sees The Shins sounding closer than they ever have to sounding like the kind of music they usually play on Scrubs (and yes, I’m aware of the Zach Braff-related irony of that statement, not to mention the fact that “New Slang” was indeed featured on the show). However, the song’s worrying power ballad potential is reined in by a sheer sense of sun-kissed melody and a twinkly ‘ba ba ba’ chorus. It’s also interesting to note how the languid, considered pace forces Mercer into a less wordy lyric, throwing up such plainly delivered lines as “You used to be such a lion / Before you got into all this cryin'”, which let’s face it is either subversively brilliant or an outright howler.
“Bait and Switch” begins more or less identically to The Flaming Lips’ “Suddenly Everything Has Changed” before breaking out into an easy-going yet uptempo little psych-Motown number, and a very enjoyable one at that; “September” is the kind of meditative strum that could have featured on either of the first two albums, reinforcing the impression that Port of Morrow constitutes Mercer’s most self-explanatory, even confessional set of lyrics to date with: “I’ve been selfish and full of pride / She knows deep down there’s a little child / But I’ve got a good side to me as well / And it’s that she loves in spite of everything else”. Oh, and dig that Beach Boys flourish at the end.
“No Way Down” sounds oddly Britpoppy, pleasant yet altogether none too memorable aside from the catchy refrain of “get used to the dust in your lungs”, but “For a Fool” is sleek, sophisticated balladry the likes of which could have featured on Gruff Rhys’s Hotel Shampoo album of last year, boasting a masterful chorus that beautifully evokes a haze of drunken ruefulness. It’s a song that might come back to haunt you, beautifully yet sadly, at regular intervals for the rest of your life.
“Fall of ’82” wields a simple but very effective harmonised guitar line before going on to sound like White Album-era Beatles taking a vintage soul detour, while “40 Mark Strasse” whips out a Shins strong suit in the form of a whistlin’ minor-key strum, slow and staggered but invested with a pure and elegantly dancing winner of a melody, one of Mercer’s strongest to date in fact. “Are you going to let these American boys put another dent in your life?” warbles Mercer, and on the off chance those Americans are The Shins then the answer is a resounding “too late”. Wonderful.
All of which leaves the curtain-closer and title track, not to mention the album’s finest track; “Port of Morrow” is by far and away the closest The Shins have come to sounding like Nina Simone, a sucker punch of a sassy soul number that sees Mercer adopting a commendably sexy falsetto in its verses. Via a Flaming Lips (yes, I know that’s the third time I’ve referenced them) psych flourish, “Port of Morrow” floats off oddly hauntingly into the ether, bringing a close to an album that as things stand registers as roughly on a level pegging with Wincing the Night Away. Another very good record then, and one which may yet follow its predecessor in gaining strength in hindsight.
Rocksucker says: Eight Quails out of Ten!