Critical Voices: The Shins, Port of Morrow

March 22, 2012

“You gotta hear this one song. It’ll change your life, I swear.”

Back in 2004, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and the Shins still consisted of its original members, the band was forever immortalized in the words of Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State, as “New Slang” catapulted the group to indie stardom and exposed them to a wider audience. But since then, James Mercer, the frontman and beating heart of the band, has dismantled the original line-up to introduce an entirely different cast of characters. Their new LP, Port of Morrow, consequently sounds more like Mercer’s side project, Broken Bells, than traditional Shins, which might alienate some fans who preferred the more charming sound of Oh, Inverted World.

The album’s opening track, “The Rifle’s Spiral,” clearly delineates this shift, as it rides a tidal wave of electric sound that distorts even Mercer’s appealing vocals. The rather likable “Simple Song,” however, saves the LP from the downward spiral indicated by its introduction. Anything but simple, the lead single is wrapped in attractive layers of guitars and ever-present drums.

“It’s Only Life” is billed as the other hit, satisfying in spite of its cloying lyrics. “September,” however, is the album’s real gem and is most like The Shins’ earlier work, a woozy love song that demonstrates Mercer’s lyrical mastery. “Love is the ink in the well / when her body writes,” he croons.

The remaining songs adhere closely to the pop sensibilities that pervade Mercer’s recent work. This is especially evident in the title track, “Port of Morrow.” The song clearly signals Mercer’s departure from the unassuming sound that so seduced early fans. It seems that the last Shin standing favors more electronica than ever in a movement toward a sound more reminiscent of a—deep breath—pop-rock genre. Needless to say, it’s difficult to imagine any of these songs changing lives.

Voice’s Choices: “Simple Song,” “September”


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