Hard to believe it’s been eight years since Natalie Portman told Zach Braff that The Shins would “change your life” during a key scene in the little indie film that could Garden State. Since then, so much has happened. Braff’s career has flamed out, Natalie Portman’s has not, and The Shins all but disappeared for awhile courtesy of Danger Mouse. Yes, after their early 2007 album Wincing the Night Away became Sub Pop’s biggest selling record ever, James Mercer stepped away from the project to focus on collaborating with Danger Mouse on a side project known as Broken Bells. Obsessive Shins devotees would follow Mercer anywhere of course, and the 60s-styled psych-pop jams that populated the self-titled LP and Meyrin Fields EP made it pretty easy to pick up new fans as well. After the first couple years some began to wonder whether The Shins would ever return, and Mercer didn’t exactly make any promises. Adding fuel to the fire was Mercer’s announcement that keyboardist Marty Crandall and drummer Jesse Sandoval had left the band, with Sandoval later claiming he was flat out fired. Whatever actually happened there, the loss of those two amicable and talented musicians would appear to not bode well for whatever The Shins might choose to do in the future. Yet Mercer has always been the man behind the name, writing and piecing together most of the songs on his own anyways.
The return of The Shins finally became imminent last summer, when it was announced the band would be releasing new music and touring “soon”. The new lineup was also revealed, which included Richard Swift, Modest Mouse drummer Joe Plummer, former Crystal Skulls member Yuuki Matthews and guitarist Jessica Dobson. After five years away, The Shins are finally back with a new album called Port of Morrow. Listening to it, somehow it feels like they never left. This is a record entirely ignorant of time and trends, simply seeking to do exactly what The Shins do best – provide straightforward and catchy indie pop. It makes perfect sense that the album’s first single is called “Simple Song”, because it comes as advertised. The ease at which the song draws you close and plants its hooks firmly within your ears is impressive. Mercer doesn’t need any flash or innovation to come up with something excellent, instead preying on our innate love of easily digestible melodies. It helps that the album is produced by Greg Kurstin, a guy known for taking overblown songs and turning them into something warm and friendly to listen to. Instead of “The Rifle’s Spiral” crushing you with its sheer size, keyboards plink and sparkle, handclaps pepper the background, and Mercer plays the gooey and calm center of it all with his vocals. That balance between grandiose and intimate is not an easy thing to achieve, and Kurstin does an exceptional job with it.
Of course no great record is based solely on the work of a talented producer, and Port of Morrow is no exception. Mercer has always been a dynamo in his own right, and previous Shins outings like Oh, Inverted World! and Chutes Too Narrow prove that without question. Listen closely to past gems like “New Slang” and “Kissing the Lipless” to truly get a grasp on the man’s penchant for clever wordplay that sometimes lacks common sense. “When they’re parking the cars on your chest, you’ve still got a view of the summer sky,” is one such confusing gem from “Know Your Onion!”. Wincing the Night Away had plenty of things in common with the band’s previous two albums, but it was a far darker and more personal record that felt less lyrically adventurous on the whole. A few years and middle age appear to have brought Mercer back to writing about characters again, and though they may not always be the most positive songs, the tempo and pacing are far better than they were the last time around. Even a relatively plain-sounding folk song like “September” gets a huge boost thanks to lines like, “Love is the ink in the well/when her body writes.” The Billy Joel-esque “Fall of ’82” might be considered a little too adult contemporary for some, but its message about friends helping you through troubled times is very well handled and softens the somewhat piddling melody. Sometimes the opposite is true though, as on “For A Fool”, where a Beach House-styled slow waltz only loses a slight bit of its potency due to the clunky hook of, “Taken for a fool/yes I was/because I was a fool.” Perhaps the most fascinating song on the entire record is the title track, which is one part psychedelic experiment and another part torch song. The mixture of the two styles is very well done, as are the lyrics which while obtuse are visually stimulating.
There’s a certain point in an artist’s career where you know they’ve officially gone from indie superstars to mainstream darlings. For The Shins, that moment fully arrived with the release of Wincing the Night Away. It was a steady but strong rise to the occasion, and one that was peppered with disappointment for those that gave a careful listen to the record. They may have still been signed to Sub Pop at the time, but the popularity of that album despite its many faults really suggested the band was headed towards the fate of relatively bland pop-rock a la Death Cab for Cutie. The five year break James Mercer took from the project and the comparatively difficult music Broken Bells made during that time apparently did great things for The Shins. The change in lineup and producers may have been a smart move too, because Port of Morrow is the best record Mercer has put out since 2003’s Chutes Too Narrow. To do it, they didn’t even have to get weird or make significant adjustments to their sound. A great record doesn’t require innovation provided it’s well structured and well written, and The Shins have done both in this case. If they keep this up, they may actually change a lot more lives in the near future, including their own.
Click past the jump to stream the entire album (for a limited time only):