The Shins - Port of Morrow | Album Review | By Volume

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The Shins

Port of Morrow

Mercer and The Shins: content and open, with a lot still to give.

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Author: on April 10, 2012
8.3
Aural Apothecary / Columbia Records
March 20, 2012

James Mercer is The Shins and The Shins are undoubtedly of James Mercer. The now Portland, Oregon based artist has again revamped what was once his side-project into a fresh entity, with a new cast, and to surprisingly adventurous effect. Port of Morrow is an outstandingly serene record – not that The Shins have ever been particularly grievous, but there was always a distinct abrasiveness to their Sub Pop records, especially in the realm of production. Port of Morrow, though, is the post-Sub Pop Shins, Mercer after Danger Mouse, after stepping out on his own; though The Shins have probably always been his baby this may be Mercer in the most command of his craft to date.

“The Rifle’s Spiral” kicks off the first offering from this brand of Shins, and while there is much more to Port of Morrow than a single track, this song sets the stage quite poignantly. The wiry distortion mixed with static screeches quickly morphs into a bassy backdrop and a multi-tracked Mercer coos his way on in: “Dead lungs command it / You pour your life down the rifle’s spiral,” and we follow him down this rabbit hole. This is not the first time Mercer has invited us into an intensely personal world of his, where we would assume so few have been granted entrance. Port of Morrow, though, is easily the least private record he has offered up under The Shins guise, yet the tunnel you follow him down is less a hole dug and more a deep sea dive. Port Of Morrow reflects an air of seclusion, as though these Shins got together at the sea bed to write and record. Even the lazy-gem “September,” with its sliding riffs and soft bongos, has a prevailing low-end buzz as a backbone that aids in creating the endearing world Port of Morrow inhabits. Life on the ocean floor, our responsibilities, our fears, our ambitions, and adoration, all drowned out by countless gallons of water. Powerful stuff, to be sure, but this is James’ playground; he has always taken the role of a hyper-realist. “Get used to the dust in your lungs,” Mercer relays on the bouncy “No Way Down,” though not with a holier-than-thou delivery. He’s simply asking for us to cope along with him.

Coping is something Mercer has never really had a problem with (or has, but oh music, the great psychiatric release) and it certainly is not an issue here. One of the album’s greatest assets is just how happy Mercer sounds. Like Jeff Tweedy post Ghost Is Born, he sounds so alive on record. It could have been the time spent with Danger Mouse in the Broken Bells project or merely that his voice has aged magnificently, but Mercer sounds genuinely content. Amongst the record’s spacious production – “40 Mark Strasse” and the title track in particular – his vocals are multi-tracked constantly to great effect, granting a choir-esque air to many of the record’s tunes and imbuing them with a life-affirming fervor. Bouncing from one decade to the next stylistically, not to mention the absence of any filler, grants the record a fundamental freshness, not only for The Shins but to a greater extent the genre they represent. While Port of Morrow is probably not going to change the face of indie as we know it, it is a beacon for the rest of Mercer’s like-minded peers: even decades into this mess that is the music business, sometimes you can still produce your best work late on. In layman’s terms: “Try harder. We did.”

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