After reading a few different reviews of the latest Shins record, the general consensus is: how has it already been five years since the release of the lovely ‘Wincing the Night Away’? Five years? It ages you, despite that it doesn’t age the record. Nonetheless, waiting an eternity for a new Shins record – THE Shins – the band that changed Sam’s life in Garden State – is an indie lifetime. Fickle hipsters are moving onto the latest and most undiscovered, right? So I expected and anticipated great things from this release. And I was far from disappointed.
James Mercer has switched up the band’s lineup completely, again, which makes for something really interesting here: a record that treads very familiar ground – spaced out reverb, off-kilter phrasing, and wonderfully surrealist lyrics with a real pop sensibility that is breezy and fun while still maintaining depth and integrity. And yet, the latter half of the record deepens the pool, adding in trippy darkness and electronic, neo-new wave sounds that are foreign to the Shins yet work well to combine a fresh, new sound to a band that still sounds like themselves, even though they’re not technically themselves, aside from Mercer who clearly holds the reins. Am I still making sense?
‘Port of Morrow’ is the kind of record that begs repeated listens for many reasons. It is catchy, first of all. Side A of the record boasts five incredibly addictive, psychedelic, poppy hooks and soaring choruses that will get stuck in your head for hours. Secondly, it is an interesting record lyrically as well, and all over the map; there are songs here that deal with more conventional ‘love’ than previous Shins offerings which contained almost indecipherable metaphors and political protest pop. Songs like ‘For a Fool’ has lines like “The way we used to carry on/Is stuck in my head like a terrible song” and it offers up something just as clever but somehow a little more mellow and reflective than the Mercer we heard on ‘Wincing’. The record seems too, to tell a story with its melodies, beginning with the most structurally rigid of the tunes and ending with the title track, a sprawling electronic ballad that sounds influenced by both the new wave, and Mercer collaborators Broken Bells. Lastly, Mercer worked with producer Greg Kurstin and so this record has a crisper, cleaner, bouncier sound than older Shins record and the difference is uncanny and must be heard to be understood.
In a Janet Jackson voice, “That’s the end? NO.” Editions of the record have come with two intriguing bonus tracks that are halfway between the new and old versions of the band but which are equally enjoyable and would not have seemed out of place if included on the self-contained ten tracks on the release. Too often, bonus tracks are the cutting room floor of the recording process but it’s hard to imagine someone like James Mercer with truly bad outtakes, which he proves with the inclusion of “Pariah King” and “The Waltz is Over”.
In short, this record is an easy mainstay. It’s not only effortless and fun to listen to but it provides something worth discussing – that even with a complete lineup change and venturing into ‘real’ production, it is possible for a band to mature, try new things and thus, unbelievably, create what is their best release to date in terms of strength, accessibility, well-thought-out melodies and a great producer.
Key tracks: Bait and Switch, For a Fool, It’s Only Love, Fall of ’82.