Port of Morrow
was recorded in Los Angeles and Portland over the course of 2011 with Mercer as usual handling all songwriting duties, lead vocals and the majority of instrumentation. The record was produced by Greg Kurstin and mixed by Rich Costey.
The Shins’ last album, 2007’s Wincing the Night Away, was largely recorded by commander-in-chief James Mercer alone, just as it was when he first developed a side project from his day job as Flake Music’s frontman. So a studio construct isn’t in itself bad news, even if it was like discovering The Smiths and Belle & Sebastian were merely interchangeable vehicles for their frontmen.
Like those icons, The Shins set a benchmark for sublimely nuanced alt-pop, but for all Wincing’s greatness, it lacked the surefooted cohesion and intuition of the first two albums Oh, Inverted World (2001) and Chutes Too Narrow (2003), qualities a united band can bring. Port of Morrow has eight players on it, so there really is no Shins anymore. Insert sad emoticon here.
Mercer’s footloose status means he can veer off-piste, for example his Broken Bells collaboration with Danger Mouse. And Mercer is far too gifted not to deliver those trademark effervescent melody and lyrical lexicons that set him apart. There’s not another songwriter alive who sounds so uplifting. Even when it sounds routine – Simple Song sounds exactly like a Shins song written to order – it works, simultaneously mixing zippy and plangent, joy and resignation. The opening The Rifle’s Spiral nails it so well, you can virtually sing along by the second verse. Bait and Switch’s rich uplift and spangly guitar and the shades of brass coating Fall of ’82 are equally gorgeous, while For a Fool’s irresistibly languid gait is matched by 40 Mark Strasse’s velvet touch.
The title-track’s slinky neo-soul could even be the best track here, where Mercer adopts an endearing falsetto and some latter-day Radiohead mood. If this is what no band restrictions means, you can appreciate Mercer’s choice, and he’s no doubt learnt some tricks from Danger Mouse. Yet it’s obvious there’s a deficit. This Shins is as much about Port of Morrow’s producer/engineer Greg Kurstin, whose previous clients include Lily Allen and Gwen Stefani: for example, It’s Only Life sounds too clipped and Pro-Tooled.
Perhaps Mercer is only really a victim of our expectations as it seems ridiculously churlish to be disappointed by a record with so much clever and excitable beauty. But an unassailable commander-in-chief doesn’t always make the right policy decisions. Note to Mercer’s sub-conscious: it’s time for a mutiny.
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