Summary

Arriving five years after Wincing the Night Away, Port of Morrow was the first Shins album to appear on James Mercer's Aural Apothecary imprint (also home to Broken Bells, his collaboration with Danger Mouse) and the first without the rest of the band that appeared on the remainder of their discography. Instead, Mercer assembled a revolving cast of supporting performers that included Modest Mouse's Joe Plummer, Crystal Skulls' Yuuki Matthews, drummer-at-large Janet Weiss, and producer Greg Kurstin, who gives the album a big, radio-friendly sound. There's no pretense of democracy nor of being "indie" here, things that might be easier to decry if these weren't some of Mercer's best songs since Chutes Too Narrow. Though there's no core band, Port of Morrow feels more focused than Wincing the Night Away even as Mercer departs from the Shins' classic sound. "The Rifle's Spiral" begins the album with keyboards that bounce and bubble everywhere, suggesting some of Broken Bells' influence has rubbed off, but the contrast between sweet vocals and barbed words ("you were always to be a dagger floating straight to their heart") that has been a key element since Oh, Inverted World is present and accounted for. Later, "Simple Song" feels downright triumphant, with big, airy bridges, a surprising minor-key chord change, and frantic guitar solos all coated in pop gloss. Mercer goes farther afield as Port of Morrow progresses, flirting with '70s soft rock on "For a Fool," while the title track is equal parts trippy and torchy, pairing a slinky falsetto with some of the album's most arresting imagery ("there are flowers in the garbage and a skull under your curls"). Consciously or not, Mercer channels classic singer/songwriters and members of famed bands gone solo on some of Port of Morrow's highlights: "Fall of '82" is as wordy, bouncy, and catchy as Billy Joel at his peak, while "It's Only Life"'s charming melody and message to take it easy make it the distant cousin of John Lennon's "Watching the Wheels." Enough of the album finds Mercer expanding and experimenting that when "Bait and Switch," which sounds like a lost Oh, Inverted World track transplanted to much fancier digs, or the Chutes Too Narrow-like rumination "September" pops up, it's almost startling. These are some of Mercer's most wide-ranging songs with any of his projects, to the point where it might be a little disingenuous to call this a Shins album, and slightly disappointing for any fans who had invested in them being a band rather than a James Mercer vehicle. Questions of semantics and authenticity aside, Port of Morrow's songs are compelling enough to keep most fans listening and enjoying. ~ Heather Phares