When I was 13, my father and I took a routine road trip from Seattle to Portland. We did this a lot, because we had family friends who lived in Vancouver, WA, and we would drive down to spend a weekend with them at least once a month. On one trip, I decided to download three new records for the trip: The Killers’ Hot Fuss, The Mars Volta’s De-Loused in the Comatorium, and The Shins’ Chutes Too Narrow. My father is a man of few words, and has always been reserved about what he listens to, choosing to stick with things like Enya and Nickel Creek, rather than stray too far into the outer banks of music. By this degree, he absolutely hated De-Loused, and somewhat tolerated Brandon Flowers’ preposterous wailing. However, he took a decent liking to the music of The Shins. To this day, it remains to be one of the few musical things we ever agreed on – other than that Fleet Foxes are pretty excellent.
The world has changed in the 9 years since I first heard The Shins, and indeed the last time we heard from them. I am married now, and I haven’t spoken to my father in two years. The world changes a lot in a year, but what about when a band drops off the face of the earth for the five The Shins have been gone? Easily a hundred bands have been risen to the height of godliness, only to be thrown aside, in the five years since the oft’-overlooked third record from the band, Wincing the Night Away. The question, when Port of Morrow was announced, was this: is this the kind of world The Shins can survive in?
It’s entirely possible that James Mercer was aware of the fact that 2012 might not be the right world for his band. They’ve undergone a lot of changes since we last saw them; Mercer is now the sole original member of the band, as he made sure to replace every last person that once made up his band. This isn’t uncommon for a lot of bands (see: The Fall), but would it make a difference here? Port of Morrow is an unusual record in the band’s catalog. On first listen, I heard the record late at night through my headphones. It was immediately different and familiar, with one quirk: at any given moment, it felt like Mercer was completely alone, playing every instrument himself. On headphones, it feels incredibly insular, like an odd love-child of Oh, Inverted World! and Chutes Too Narrow. However, when given true speakers, and a room to spread out in, it feels as though every note fills every last corner of the room in which you’re hearing it. The minute “The Rifle’s Spiral” flows out of the speakers, it immediately feels a million miles away from everything else Mercer has touched since Inverted World made its way into the hearts and minds of the people. Its tremendous, psychedelic swagger is awe-inspiring, and if it weren’t for Mercer’s distinct wail, you’d never, ever think it was a Shins song.
It’s hard to tell if this is a good thing at times, but upon repeated listens, its charm becomes apparent. The warmth of every track starts to envelop you, and it becomes difficult to remove yourself properly to actually judge the record on its own merits. That is the charm of Port of Morrow; no matter what your intentions for it are, it will find a way to worm itself into your heart, becoming slightly impervious to actual criticism. The good news here, though, is that when you do manage to take a step back to examine it, you find a beautifully crafted record. The album’s lead single “Simple Song” feels world-worn and lived-in, like the sonic twin of “Phantom Limb,” without the candy-coated radio-ready tone. It soars with a warmth I almost worried would be missing from the band, but it almost feels more like a classic song than anything they’ve put their name to.
There are pockets that resemble the old stuff, calling back to a somewhat strange place: the solemnity of “September” draws easy comparisons to “Young Pilgrim,” and “For a Fool” hearkens back to the days of “The Past and Pending,” all grown up. Indeed, if you’re looking, you can find bits of all of the classics in the songs here. If you really squint, it looks a lot like the other three Shins records. But this one is truly different, in almost every way. Mercer’s way with words is still here: “You sure must be strong/When you feel like an ocean being warmed by the sun,” “I finally had ’em like ducks in a row,” “Young and bright, but now just a dim light off in the distance.” This is where he has always shone the brightest, managing a simplicity that never feels quite simple, as absurd as it sounds. He has also shone in that he has, in starting his band from scratch, found a cast of characters who are more than willing to make his thought sound exactly like they should; it’s a wonder if the record would have sounded anywhere close to the way it does if he had made it with the band that once was, and if it would sound anywhere near as good.
Port of Morrow is the clear, logical conclusion of a man who has spent the last five years doing anything but making an album that sounded like the ones he had made before. His time spent with Broken Bells, and working with other bands, have changed his style just enough to improve something that was already fantastic. It’s clear now, that this was exactly the route the band was meant for, because now, their status finally matches their sound: absolutely massive.