The Shins – Port of Morrow (First Impressions)
By now everyone knows that with New Slang The Shins changed countless lives – or so cinema would have it – and as much as I hate to be this hipster I have to say that my name is probably on that list alongside Natalie Portman’s. No, they didn’t get me into good music nor out of a bad break-up, it wasn’t anything so extravagant or cliché; it didn’t alter me directly, but simply acted as a catalyst for the changes that were already set to occur. As I made my way from one phase of life to another they were always there with something to say and I’d be lying if I tried to deny that those words affected me in some way or that I don’t still think about those times with their music playing in my mind as many others do. What most people don’t think about though is the fact that a band, unlike a record, is a living thing, one with a life that also changes and this fact is key to comprehending the latest Shins CD.
The boys from Portland were seemingly a prodigious project, breaking big with their first release and bigger with their second; the existence of an earlier band, Flake Music, with the exact same line-up is easily forgotten for the sake of a good story. The two albums earnt the band either the love or the loathing of everyone around the music scene at the time and that kind of attention required them to grow up fast, in a way we took them to school. They did and the result was Wincing the Night Away, their most complex and concept driven album to date, one that was truly deserving of being so divisive (though it still stands as one of my all-time favourite albums). Whether it was because of the backlash, or some other in-band mechanism, this is where things started to fall apart; like students after graduation the band began to blow away from one another until another album seemed an impossibility. And yet here we are with said new album.
How, you may ask, did it happen? Well without any kind of grand reunion, that’s for sure. During the downtime lead singer James Mercer went to find himself – as many do post-education –and it seems he did, and that this new self was incompatible with his old life and so he just started a new band under the same name and recorded this record with them. So while it is still listed as “by the Shins” there is nothing plural about this production; Port O Morrow is not just an auterist album, it’s more than that, it’s myopic. The particulars have been perverted in a number of different ways, like say the perspective of the protagonist in the lyrics; now near every song is told from the first person, there are plenty of I’s, We’s and Me’s in each and every chorus sung. Vocally Mercer seems to be seeking more of the spotlight, performing more often in that impressive but distracting facet of his falsetto that he found working with Danger Mouse on the Broken Bells, a side project. In fact, the album as a whole feels more like a follow-up to their release than it does Wincing as sonically the sound of the two is much more similar, made up as they are of electronic beats and highly edited tracks.
Mercer has also managed to massage himself into the album on a more macro level; seemingly singing more personal, perhaps even non-fictional, stories that feel closer to social realism than they do the usual Shins sublime. The overall topic of each song is thus also a little more obvious than it may have seemed in the past, though this may well have as much to do with my own aging as it does their simplification; the real issue though is that regardless of how they are revealed their themes are usually topical, specific rather than eternal: Though Shins songs have long railed against hegemonic norms in religion and politics the young atheist’s autobiography of The Rifle Spiral and the GFC flavoured anthem No Way Down nevertheless feel like something new thanks to their outwardsness and lack of obfuscation while It’s Only Life spells out its message and thus sound more like a self-help book than any of its earlier counterparts.
There is an upside though to Mercer’s honest heart and this is that he is far from a simple man, in fact James is just about as inventive a writer as you could want and thus these stories, while simple, are all made incredibly interesting; the multi-level layering and intellectual requirements of the imagery is identical here to that of his earlier work, with plenty of fascinating phrases to be found in each lyric and a catchy melody accompanying them. Here though James displays an unfortunate tendency to use one of the more mundane metaphors as the chorus or bridge, despite the fact that their repetition requires that they be one of the more terrific if they are not to tire, and this does diminish their impact slightly. Though it may seem otherwise this is the first true criticism that I’ve written; while the tone may suggest otherwise those aforementioned technical elements are for the most part simply different rather than wrong and while I imagine that many of the bands fans will fail to find a difference between the two I do.
It’s going to sound a strange comparison but in a lot of ways I would a liken this album to William Blake’s Songs of Experience and the earlier Shins fair to that of Innocence; were they released today fans would certainly have found fault in the former book and cried out that they preferred his earlier stuff. Yes this album has little of the childlike wonder that made Chutes and Inverted so intriguing, but that simply means that it has grown up, as we all have in the time since and James’ specific targeting of topics and plain-spoken approach to skewering them is a part of this maturity, as is his desire to stand as an individual rather than a member of an anonymous pack. Certainly I can see the cost of this; we get to know Mercer better here than in any other album, he has a tangible humanity to him that is new, but I fear it was the alien nature of all the other albums that made them so special. Things change though and that’s just something that we need to grow up and accept; the future’s calling an I know that I’mma try and answer her, will you?
For me what it comes down to is this, don’t think of this as The Shins but a whole new project instead and judge it as such. I have and I’ve come to the conclusion that I like this band, whoever they are, enough to have brought tickets to see them in New York come May and I think that says a lot about what I think of this album so far.