The Shins’ “Port of Morrow” runs into the same problems that albums like those from the New Pornographers or of Montreal do. There is a calculation and formula to great pop songwriting, and its expert writers sometimes struggle to distinguish each song as an individual work. There’s only small windows of spontaneous possibilities, like the predictable pinch-hits of Nels Cline when a Wilco song gets lost.
With this set, there is no new argument you could lodge against Mercer as a songwriter that you couldn’t before: if you’re a fan, you won’t find any reason to be dissuaded. It’s his backers that have changed. Between this and 2007’s “Wincing the Night Away,” Mercer recruited an all-new, experienced band, and he reteamed with Broken Bells cohort Danger Mouse
for production. But still, at the center, is Mercer’s simple melodies, verbosity and that talk-timbre voice. Mercer didn’t re-invent the wheel, it’s just housed somewhere else.
If only every song could carry the weight that opener “The Rifle Spiral” does. It swivels and jogs through high highs and low lows. I also love the pick-to-strings immediacy on “40 Mark Strasse” which has Mercer cooing like he means it, like the best acoustic somethings from the Shins’ high-water mark “Chutes Too Narrow.” Album single “Simple Song” embraces its ‘60s pop influencers full-force with watery guitar and a harmless, faceless choir. The closer, “Port of Morrow’s” title track, sounds precisely how you’d want a track called that to sound, all ghosts with soft consonants.
Slow-sinker “September” should have stayed solo for higher impact, as Danger Mouse’s involved production quashes any intimacy. Cocktail hour mid-tempo ballad “It’s Only Life” shrugs with bleats, while “Bait & Switch” beeps and “No Way Down” beats a ‘90s rhythm track to death. “For a Fool” works in all ways except for a strong hook, better felt in its guitar line than in Mercer’s bored vocals.
“Fall of ’82,” for what it is, is a prime example of Mercer and Danger Mouse arriving on the same page, with a hat tip to “Helter Skelter” and a perfect mix that bats down the middle. I love the intrusion of a horn solo – coldly premeditated for sure – but still a sign of life as its lodged behind utterly forgettable “For a Fool.”
Like Mercer sings in “Bait & Switch,” “I can always be found / A creature of habit has no real protection… I’m just a simple man.” He may be talking about heartbreak in the tune, but from a critical perspective, the Shins’ simplicity and Mercer’s vulnerability is already well-worn, well-discussed, routine. We could just repeat old thoughts about old albums, but its fair to say: “Port of Morrow,” like those sets, wins some and loses some.