The Shins, Port of Morrow
By Chris Lehberger
March 20, 2012
On June 2, 2007, Pitchfork Media called The Shins “an unassuming and excellent formalist indie pop band,” a statement with undertones that possibly critics and fans were overcomplicating things—indie rock isn’t supposed to be so involved.
But sometimes it is.
The best example is the nature of the hipster culture, a movement that puts its entire emphasis on posturing at the forefront of trends, often shrouding artists in pretense that otherwise would be free and clear from the “pretentious” denomination.
At 42 years of age, perhaps James Mercer is a bit tired of all this. In thinking about the new record, he cut keyboardist Marty Crandall and drummer Jesse Sandoval in 2009, taking a total of five years off between records while dabbling with Danger Mouse in Broken Bells and becoming a father.
Indeed, on the contemplative mid-tempo tune “The Rifle’s Spiral,” something seems vastly different behind the dance-rock drumbeat—it sounds like The Shins, but at the same time, it doesn’t. The combination of those five Shins-less years and the record’s name, Port of Morrow, left early feelings of eeriness and excitement, respectively; you would expect similar sentiments of melancholy dreaminess that the band’s third LP, Wincing the Night Away, exhibited. But what happens on Port of Morrow isn’t about a band reinventing itself or staying true to its roots. It’s about wandering into the space between—and that’s the easiest place for a band to get lost.
The majority of the songs on Port of Morrow no longer fall into the kitschy corners of indie pop. In its place are songs influenced by more weathered styles of music, such as the Don Henley-ish “Fall of '82.” Album standout “It’s Only Life,” a simple rock song with a pretty chorus, borrows much from Tom Petty’s catalog. But even so, much of the record feels heartless, including the use of electronic instrumentation (and there is a lot on this record) which is used chiefly to fill space (“The Simple Song”) and, in the end, feels ironically empty.
Although songs like “40 Mark Strasse,” a voyeuristic tale of lost innocence, and “No Way Down” stand as enjoyable tunes with redeeming melodies, most of the strength of this record stands on Mercer’s lyrics. On Port of Morrow, Mercer is a storyteller. There are bright spots, such as when Mercer sings “We all spend a little time going down the rabbit hole” on “It’s Only Life” and when he warns to “get used to the dust in your lungs” on “No Way Down.” But, most of the time, you end up hoping for his words to pull you through the slosh of songs that are too palatable to have any real taste (“For A Fool,” “Bait and Switch”). Whether intentional or not, it feels like the band is trying to fit in, and the artists who fit in tend to be the ones that end up getting lost in the crowd. Even though the McCartney-inspired title track might be strong enough to stand on its own, it still gets lost somewhere in the muck and mire, and this seems to be the recurring dream of Port of Morrow—songs that are closer to mediocre than good and end up feeling like shapeless masses when thrown together.
The Shins have always been one of the faces of indie rock (this is where I mention Garden State), but I think as people grow older, they tire, and as they tire, they change. In The Shins' case, that change has resulted in a record that finds itself somewhere in the doldrums of halfhearted, middle-sized rock and roll. It’s entrapment, and it’s easy—but most of all, it’s quite disappointing.
Christopher Lehberger is a writer living in Pittsburgh. He likes music, literature and the Pittsburgh Steelers. He blogs at www.thezeitgeistofdominiquefrancon.blogspot.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @chrislehberger.