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"Port of Morrow"

The Shins – Port of Morrow
14 March 2012, 07:59 Written by Emma Tucker
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In The Shins’ latest release, all the things that are so loveable about the band are there for the taking. James Mercer still knows how to write a quirky yet poignant turn of phrase, and his voice continues to caper beautifully around the higher pitched notes. This album has tracks that feel very much like classic Shins fare, even if it suffers at times from a sense that Mercer has been slightly heavy-handed with the more sentimental songs.

The first couple of tracks on Port Of Morrow feel like The Shins at their very best best. ‘The Rifle’s Spiral’ makes for a perfect opener, with a spacey underlying whistle, and the kind of overlying shimmer that comprises the signature Shins sound. ‘Simple Song’ continues in a similar vein, and there’s something deeply comforting about returning to this band and finding they still fit so comfortably into their own groove.

‘Bait & Switch’ demonstrates that Mercer still knows how to write a brilliant lyric. When he sings “Two weeks on and my spine was in traction/My eyes in a basket”, it’s a reminder that few other singers know how to be simultaneously so bizarre, and yet so moving. Mercer knows how to wrap his voice around even the simplest of lyrics to make them sound heartfelt. “I’m just a simple man cursed with an honest heart” could so easily sound like another throwaway line, but it’s testament to the power of Mercer’s voice that he carries it off and lends it such a degree of poignancy.

Tracks like these don’t see The Shins venture into any particularly new or experimental territory, but it’s clear they’ve had the chance to hone their sound between albums, even if Port of Morrow sees it under a slightly thicker varnish of production than we’ve been used to in the past.

Just as there are plenty of moments on this album that remind us why we love this band, there are equally times when it adopts a direction that’s hard to stay with. Although The Shins have always been twee – at times achingly so – there are some tracks that feel like Mercer needed someone there to temper his more sentimental side. Only those with the sweetest tooth are going to be able to appreciate lyrics like “The wheel’s in motion/I’ll never drink your potion” and other similarly obvious rhymes from ‘It’s Only Life’. It’s doubly disappointing because part of The Shins enormous appeal lies in Mercer’s lyrical ability. ‘It’s Only Life’ is one of the weakest songs on the album, and it finds its counterparts in ‘For a Fool’ and ’82′, which also suffer from feeling slightly overproduced and overwritten. These softer tracks feel awkwardly shoehorned between more classic Shins songs, and there’s something unavoidably jarring about being launched from the easy bounciness of something like ‘Simple Song’ into a track like ‘It’s Only Life’, which is overbearingly earnest.

Mercer has spoken much, in recent interviews, of the effect his children have had on his songwriting, and bearing this in mind makes it easier to forgive him some of his lyrical stumbles on Port of Morrow. Even so, I can’t help but wish for less of the darker subject matter, and more of the lighter Shins attitude we’re used to. The band have tackled heartfelt emotion in the past, but it’s never come off quite as weighty as it does on some of Port of Morrow‘s tracks. Whilst they’re to be congratulated for venturing into this territory, there’s something about it that doesn’t quite fit in with the usual Shins ethos.

I came to Port of Morrow determined to enjoy it because I love the Shins so much. However I’ve left it unable to escape a creeping feeling that the album isn’t quite what I had hoped for. Perhaps it’s just the inevitability of the band growing up, but it feels a little like something indefinable has been lost along the way. Although certainly not a bad album, and definitely one that offers plenty to be enjoyed, it is nevertheless, undeniably, not quite the classic that I, or the band’s legion of fans, might have been expecting.

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