Port Of Morrow might not be the final Shins album, but perhaps it should be. It’s not a bad record; on the contrary, there’s enough good to fortify James Mercer’s status as one of the most appealing tunesmiths of his generation. Nor is Morrow an unnecessary or perfunctory album, coming as it does in the wake of Mercer’s new band, Broken Bells, the dissolution of the “classic” Shins lineup, and the five-year hiatus after 2007’s Wincing The Night Away. It sounds like Mercer is working through something; no matter its shortcomings, which are immediately apparent yet hard to pin down, the process of making Morrow might make him a better songwriter and musician in the long run.
What Mercer seems to be figuring out is his connection to his own past, and what (if anything) he should keep and what must be left behind. Mercer contends, not without justification, that The Shins have always been primarily about his songs. Mercer launched the group in 1996 as a side project to his main band at the time, Flake Music. Over time his bandmates in that group—including Marty Crandall and Jesse Sandoval—joined Mercer in this group, but from the beginning, The Shins were James Mercer plus a supporting cast enlisted to realize his ideas.
That hasn’t changed with Port Of Morrow, even if seemingly everything else about The Shins has. Out is the band that backed Mercer on the first three Shins records; in is producer/multi-instrumentalist Greg Kurstin of the electro-soul group The Bird And The Bee, whose close collaboration with Mercer on Morrow recalls Mercer’s partnership with Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton in Broken Bells. With Kurstin’s help, Mercer has blown out the traditional Shins sound, bringing a new sense of scale and force to bright and shiny pop-rockers like the driving “The Rifle’s Spiral” and lead single “Simple Song,” which wraps slashing guitars and pummeling drums in a soaring, slicked-up package that’s similar to The Who’s new wave-baiting 1981 effort Face Dances.
The comparison to a coldly competent late-period album from another veteran band is wholly intentional. Here’s another one: those last two Replacements records that Paul Westerberg made with a battery of guest stars in a last-ditch attempt to chase rock stardom. Mercer is already famous—indie-famous, anyway—so charges that he’s cynically clutching to a profitable brand name can be set aside for now. Mercer’s issue appears to be more of the hoarding variety: He can’t let go of his baggage.
Mercer has made what amounts to a solo record and needlessly attached it to a band identity that he’s outgrown. He clearly wants to push his music in different directions—and he succeeds at times on Morrow—and yet he’s hamstrung by a name that represents a younger, scrappier, and less mature period in his career. On one level, The Shins is just the moniker Mercer has been making music under, and it’s ultimately up to him to decide what is and isn’t The Shins. But names—and the conscious shifts in aesthetic they signify—matter to Mercer, regardless of whether he admits it. The Shins were deliberately set apart from Flake Music, and Broken Bells from The Shins, even if they all generally sound like the same guy making catchy pop tunes.
Mercer admitted in the wake of Broken Bells that he felt confined by The Shins, and was subsequently liberated working under a new guise free of his audience’s expectations. So it’s odd that he would now return to The Shins, in spite of his apparent lack of interest in revisiting the sound of The Shins. Actually, Morrow does have one song that recalls Mercer’s Oh, Inverted World days: “September” is the sort of charming, softly strummed love song that made The Shins famous, right down to the shimmering guitar line and the spine-tingling backing vocals approximating that late-afternoon-in-the-summertime feeling.
“September” will either be your favorite song from Morrow, if you cling to The Shins’ old days, or a nice but skippable trifle, if Broken Bells is more your thing. Fortunately for those in the latter group, Morrow is much more in line with Mercer’s recent work than those Shins albums he made all those years ago. The lightly funky “Bait And Switch” is pure radio bait, playfully goosing Mercer’s shy melody with extroverted beats and a rolling bassline. “No Way Down” is more unabashed pop, featuring an easygoing stroll and spritely guitars on loan from Maroon 5.
That’s the realm that Mercer is working in now, and when he has the confidence on Morrow to follow through on his glossy pop ambitions, his music manages to be as likeable as it always has been. It’s when Mercer tries to update the old Shins playbook with big-budget production that Morrow sounds awkward and dangerously sleepy. There’s a nice little song tucked inside the lost-love ballad “For A Fool,” but it’s buried beneath several coats of MOR dross intended to induce a sea of hoisted lighters. “It’s Only Life” is also pretty corny, with lyrics reeking of too many midlife-crisis clichés. (“How’ll you learn to steer / when you’re grinding all your gears?”) The Shins were once billed as a band that would change your life—Morrow sounds like a change of life.
Is Port Of Morrow meant to carry on a legacy that the 41-year-old Mercer created when he was in his 20s and 30s, or remake the band for a new time in his career? The answer, it appears, is both, which is unsatisfying and unfair, most of all to Mercer himself. If he wants to move on, he should really move on, with The Shins in his rearview. Mercer attempts to do that on Morrow’s title track, which closes the album with an intoxicating blend of slippery jazz rhythms and Mercer’s slinky falsetto. It sounds nothing like The Shins, and shouldn’t be expected to.