Kate Koenig, Arts Editor
The Shins’ fourth studio album, “Port of Morrow,” was released on Tuesday, March 20.
Naturally, longtime listeners of the Shins’ music were apprehensive about the latest release, as the original lineup which was held rather consistently for the first three albums has since been virtually gutted and rebuilt from the ground up, with the exception of main songwriter James Mercer. Since the end of the Shins’ last tour in 2009, keyboardist Marty Crandall, drummer Jesse Sandoval, and lead guitarist Dave Hernandez (whose place was temporarily held by Neil Langford for the time during which their first album “Oh, Inverted World” was recorded) have been replaced by singer/songwriter Richard Swift on keyboards, bassist Yuuki Matthews of the Crystal Skulls, guitarist Jessica Dobson, and drummer Joe Plummer of Modest Mouse.
After listening, however, it seems that James Mercer’s position at the helm of the project carries enough importance in the quality of the music – a solo album would be helpful for a final analysis – that “Port of Morrow” makes another Shins helping of candy for the ears of indie fans. (It only makes sense, as Mercer is given full songwriting credit for every Shins work that’s been released, in addition to his having a hand in the audio production since day one.)
The album has a strong opening, beginning with the driving “The Rifle’s Spiral” followed by the single, “Simple Song.” Both, especially “Rifle’s Spiral,” have charging beats and detailed layers of production; repeated listens uncover synthesized sounds and mixing effects that go unnoticed the first time around.
It seems characteristic of Mercer to heavily disguise the meanings of his songs with his lyrics, which are usually filled with figurative language and clever vocabulary. Something about “Port of Morrow” though, while it still includes that style of writing, has a more open honesty to it. On previous albums it was difficult to decipher what the meaning of any given song was beyond the general topic, but on “It’s Only Life,” the listener gets a tangible image of maybe an ex-girlfriend who’s wallowing in self-pity; on “September,” the beauty of plain and simple descriptions takes over as Mercer reflectively celebrates what one would imagine to be his relationship with his wife of six years. The expression is more direct, and not always as laden with metaphor. And there’s a certain dignity about his latest writing which could be attributed to his age – how often to you find yourself listening to indie rock written by someone aged 40 or older?
Something respectable about The Shins is how each of their albums displays a new face. On each LP they’ve produced, each song on the track list works together to form an overall unique album sound, whether it be the home-produced oddball feel of “Oh, Inverted World,” the more acoustic Beach Boys/Beatle-esque sound of “Chutes Too Narrow,” the synth and electronic exploration of “Wincing the Night Away,” or the new balance of acoustic, electronic, honest reflection, “Port of Morrow.” Yet Mercer’s knack for scholarly lyrics, varying song structures and chord progressions and eye for detail in production remain consistent. For that reason, despite the five-year hiatus, change in lineup, and changes in Mercer’s personal life, those who dig The Shins will find plenty more to love on the new release.