Collectively speaking, The Shins have crafted exceptionally strong pop throughout the last ten years. Even when they sounded drifting and far away, they never lost any kind of feeling for the strong hook of melodic essence that is at the core of their reach. James Mercer not only acts as the illustrious voice to the band but it’s never been a mystery that he was the lead songwriter as well. As The Shins, it was always a collective effort and through the much-maligned Wincing the Night Away – though a dreamy outcome was in full effect – there were movements within the band that left Mercer alone. Now working with producer Greg Kurstin, Mercer, with a little help from his friends, has delivered what might be the best Shins album to date.
A lot can happen in ten years, The Shins first album in 2001, Oh Inverted World, was a whimsical darling that still nests as a primitive indie album during its age and time. With Port of Morrow Mercer digs deep in forming a polished and almost, muscular relationship with the music. There’s the way the album starts, with “The Rifle’s Spiral” and its roaring guitar and pounding drums. Immediately, one of the changes Mercer implemented (making the drummer’s seat inter-changeable) is felt with Janet Weiss’ fantastic pulse and intensity. And although Kurstin (who’s best known for working with pop acts like Lilly Allen and Kelly Clarkson) is noted as co-producer, Port of Morrow is a collaboration between mostly him and Mercer. The two play most of the instruments and it’s clear that the newfound transition has entirely refreshed The Shins.
The album also features a few guitar options with Nik Freitas and especially on “40 Mark Strasse,” the overall aesthetic is compelling. The circular motion leads perfectly into the closing title track that finds Mercer’s voice in stunning fashion. As he sings “ace of spades, port of morrow, life is death is life” Mercer is lamenting a somewhat morbid vision but inquiring on the future – which for all is death. The album’s concept about love is intertwined into an image of life where one is losing but slowly gaining, step by step. Before, on “It’s Only Life,” Mercer is showing the positive realm of it and now, on “Port of Morrow” he’s grippingly honest about it. The whole time, with the magnetic force of Weiss’ drums in the background as he yelps the night away.
The lead single, “Simple Song,” paved the way for the album’s splendid sound to project the right kind of sentiments. Its sweeping style and ambient entrance is greatly juxtaposed when Mercer’s voice and the drums come in, but the real surprise in once the swirling guitar appears. Not only is it a firm reminder of the band’s melodic beauty but the way the instruments sound – forcibly loud and impeccably rendered – allows for Mercer’s voice to flourish radiantly. The sounds throughout are surely stronger than before and through the gleam is a seamlessly crafted pop song that is downright perfect.
The five years it took to create Port of Morrow defined a time where the band was transitioning and ending a chapter, while perhaps, starting a new one midway through and continuing forward. But the importance of striving forward for The Shins is tremendously exceptional, in spite of everything else; they’ve presented a sparkling presentation with Port of Morrow.