With a synthesized drone and other electronic noises turning on, The Shins return, further pushing their sound into new directions on Port of Morrow.
Lyrically and musically, The Shins sound a shade darker on the driving opener, “The Rifle’s Spiral.” The guitars and drums have an entrancing depth and heaviness to them. Frontman James Mercer’s iconic vocals sound quite serious and lyrics like “Dead lung’s command it / You pour your life down the rifle’s spiral,” loom large on an opening track. Each instrument here has a compelling, discernible sound, while they all work together to pulse the song along with intensity. Synthesizers weave in and out as a perfect counterpoint, opening and closing the track. It is a flawless opener, as it tugs at you with anticipation for what is to come.
In 2009, former Shins members Marty Crandall and Jesse Sandoval exited the band, and Mercer replaced them with a slew of new members. In 2011, Mercer released a self-titled album for his side project, Broken Bells, with acclaimed producer/musician Danger Mouse.
On Port of Morrow, Mercer and these new members channel some of Broken Bells’ tone, with a spacier, grander sound. Although The Shins sound different with the new members, based on the evolution of their sound and following 2007’s Wincing the Night Away, the progression feels natural.
The second track and the album’s first single “Simple Song” pulses with rock-pop joy. If listeners were afraid The Shins’ iconic sound had disappeared, they need only to wait until the chorus as Mercer passionately wails, “I know that things can really get rough / when you go it alone.” Mercer’s remarkably high range jumps up and down with such Shins-y familiarity, one can’t help but be taken by its charm. The mix is littered with frenetic guitar riffs, sweeping harmonies and punchy drums, which all make “Simple Song” the perfect response to the grandeur of “The Rifle’s Spiral.”
Clocking in around 40 minutes, 10 songs in total, Port of Morrow is well-paced, like previous Shins records. “Bait and Switch” grooves along, with a catchy little chorus and guitar solos that hearken back to early Shins material.
“September” wonderfully pulls back, driven by Mercer’s acoustic guitar and vocals; it is reminiscent of “Young Pilgrims” off 2003’s Chutes Too Narrow, though the lush harmonies and reverb-rich guitars give it a much fuller sound.
In terms of production, The Shins sound particularly clean and crisp. The vocals, guitars and drums are all very polished, more so than on any other Shins record. However, this doesn’t always work in their favor, as tracks like “No Way Down,” bounces along unoriginally, sounding a little too clean. The first half of the album is stronger than the second; though Port of Morrow’s title track closes the album effectively with a slow psychedelic jam, as Mercer’s vocals evoke a bit of Thom Yorke and David Bowie.
Despite the weak moments on the album, it is really Mercer’s abilities as a songwriter and vocalist making the material exciting and re-listenable. Mercer really is the sound of The Shins and he maintains that familiar Shins sound on this record, while finding new melodies and a colorful musical landscape to explore.