The Shins are back after five years with a new setup and their new album Port of Morrow, the long-awaited follow-up to 2007 release Wincing the Night Away. The American indie-rockers, who began as a side-project to frontman James Mercer’s primary band Flake Music, are now on their fourth album since forming in 1996, touring with the likes of Modest Mouse and landing two places in Pitchfork Media’s Top 100 albums of 2000-2004 for their debut Oh, Inverted World and follow-up Chutes Too Narrow, as well as earning a Grammy Award nomination for Wincing the Night Away. Their previous albums may seem hard acts to follow, but, once again, the indie-rockers seem capable of stepping up yet another level.
Port of Morrow hits the ground running with opener The Rifle’s Spiral which whips straight into a heavy, multi-layered production, which relentlessly builds until seamlessly slipping into the now familiar plodding intro of Simple Song. The first two tracks have already been open to the public for a while now, receiving a reaction that has brought high expectations for the rest of the album. The resonant, anthemic Simple Song does stand out as the obvious choice for lead single with its rattling guitar and strong, screeched vocals, but despite the energetic opening, Port of Morrow quickly shows that it’s not just catchy indie tunes that it offers.
One of the album’s more mellow moments comes from It’s Only Life, which seems to pull you hypnotically along with it as Mercer sings ‘I’ve been down the very road you’re walking now/ It doesn’t have to be so dark and lonesome,’ in a rare, desperately hopeful way that almost makes you relieved for the regular jaunty indie that comes next in No Way Down. It is these more mellow moments, most notably For a Fool, the solemn tale of a self-confessed fool, that allow The Shins to rise above other indie-rock artists today. Despite this album falling shorter lyrically compared to Mercer’s previous work, Mercer’s complex, but subtle, production allows the tracks, both upbeat and slow, to all sit comfortably alongside each other.
In direct contrast to the buoyant opening, Port of Morrow ends on a rather more sombre, winding-down tone. The echoing chorus, wrapped tightly in the clashing guitars and buzzing synth which make this album so vibrant, of 40 Mark Strasse gives way to the title track, which concludes the album. Album closer Port of Morrow is as if Mercer is venting all of his leftover energy into one last song with close to six minutes of its soaring vocals and soft, soothing tempo. You leave the album in a dreamy state of relaxation, far from the fist-pump inciting tracks it began with.
As a whole, Port of Morrow is like a night out; it begins full of energy and with a familiar buzz which slowly starts to centre on desperate romance and lamentations before coming to a slow, unwinding end. The only down side to this is that when I reached the end, I had no incentive to go back and listen again; it felt like once I had finished, I couldn’t go back to the liveliness of the beginning. It is an album that you have to listen to all the way through to feel its full effect, and it is an effect that is delivered, as expected, with impressive self-awareness and passion.