From Pitchfork: http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/16390-port-of-morrow/
The Sopranos ended. The United States elected an African-American president. The global financial system more or less keeled over. The U.S. stopped sending people into space and ”got” Osama Bin Laden, both in the same year. Harry Potter peaced out– twice. Zach Braff’s career shit the bed. Martin Scorcese won an Oscar, finally. Jeff Mangum returned. R.E.M., LCD Soundsystem, the White Stripes– called it quits, all of ‘em. Michael Jackson died, and so did Whitney Houston. Pop music headed out to the club, mainstream hip-hop more or less went bust, people started buying more vinyl (and, to a lesser extent, cassettes), and “indie” culture traded its guitars for turntables (or, at the very least, pirated audio software and synthesizers that didn’t take up too much space in the bedroom).
A lot can happen in five years, the amount of time since the Shins released their last album, the eclectic and overlooked Wincing the Night Away. During that stretch, the band’s primary songwriter and sole constant member, James Mercer, also went digital. In 2010, he teamed up with Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton to form Broken Bells, a collaboration that has led to an album and an EP, both of which were light on things like “songs” and “choruses.” The problem with Broken Bells is that it took up so much of Mercer’s time and didn’t provide a proper outlet for one of big-tent indie pop’s strongest songwriters. For a few years, the idea of a new (never mind good) Shins album seemed unlikely. Mercer sounded hopelessly adrift.
A deep breath, then: James Mercer has returned to Earth. Port of Morrow, the Shins’ fourth studio album in 11 years, is a triumphant return from a project that once risked being reduced to an indie-went-mainstream tagline. It’s the perfect distillation of the Shins’ back catalog– the jangly, wistful airs of Oh, Inverted World, Chutes Too Narrow‘s genre-resistant playfulness, Wincing the Night Away‘s expansively detailed production. But in other ways, its colorful, detail-oriented approach sets it apart from anything Mercer’s done before.
Mercer invited a cast of characters both new (Janet Weiss, production wiz Greg Kurstin, singer/songwriter Nik Freitas) and old (Modest Mouse’s Joe Plummer, Fruit Bats’ Eric D. Johnson, on-and-off supporting players Marty Crandall and Dave Hernandez) to realize his ornate pop-rock creations. All contributions are felt– you don’t need liner notes to tell how many people worked on this thing– but none more so than Kurstin’s. His multi-instrumental arrangements and behind-the-boards know-how are what make Port of Morrow one of 2012′s best-sounding records thus far. Every element here is tricked out for maximum emotional effect– experience total power-pop pleasure overload from “Simple Song”‘s acrobatic pile of guitars, get the chills from the drifting sea breeze-echo of “September”, and wrap yourself in “For a Fool”‘s string-laden lushness. Needless to say, these songs would sound great on Natalie Portman’s humongous headphones.
Of course, Kurstin wouldn’t matter if the raw materials weren’t so strong: Mercer (who also co-produced) delivers the goods, mostly by being himself. He’s either missed out on the last few years of indie’s ever-shifting microtrends or simply doesn’t care about “the conversation.” And thank fucking god for that. More so than any other Shins album, Port of Morrow doesn’t sound like it belongs to any particular decade or style, instead hopping around like some fully loaded AM radio dial that cranks out gem after gem. There’s the sugary new-wave “Bait and Switch”, “No Way Down”‘s meat-and-potatoes American pop-rock (right down to the “Jack & Diane”-biting guitar hook), the title track’s creeping psych-soul bombast. Most surprisingly, there’s “Fall of ’82″, a Steve Miller Band-meets-Chicago lite-rock hybrid– muted trumpet solo!– that also works as a “Summer of ’69″ update. (These are all good things.)
Lyrically, I’ve always thought of James Mercer as a cousin of A.C. Newman, another songwriter with a gift for spinning gold from the sounds from the past. Newman’s never been shy about writing kinda-nonsensical lyrics that simply sound good accompanying a solid melody (think “Sing Me Spanish Techno”, or “Submarines of Stockholm”). Although Wincing the Night Away had dark undertones drawn from Mercer’s personal life, he’s got a similar knack for writing beautiful words that don’t need to mean anything in particular. Along with its other strong points, Port of Morrow proves he hasn’t lost that talent, especially when rhapsodizing on matters of the heart. “Simple Song” and “Fall of ’82″ score points for sharp, nostalgic description, but “September” is the real winner, a straightforward stunner of stumbling affection with a shining pearl of a couplet buried within: “Love is the ink in the well/ When her body writes.”
Despite all the hullabaloo about band members getting “fired,” the fact is that Mercer isn’t a member of the Shins– he is the Shins, and he always has been. In a recent interview, he expressed his frustration over how to represent that specificity: “Bands I really loved were these auteurs who presented themselves as bands– Neutral Milk Hotel, the Lilys– and I just felt, ‘Why am I not allowed to do that?’” Consider Port of Morrow, then, the results of an auteur’s accepting that role while having a load of fun with his friends in order to realize it. Comeback stories don’t get much better than that.