The Shins have always been about James Mercer, but on Port of Morrow, the Shins basically are James Mercer, and the distinction is an important one. Mercer, per usual, wrote all the songs, but he also recorded most of the instruments himself and has built nearly an entire new band around him to tour these songs, after parting ways with keyboard player Marty Crandall, drummer Jesse Sandoval, and bassist Dave Hernandez. The main collaborator on the record, then, isn’t band members but producer Greg Kurstin, and together he and Mercer have made an album that feels, well, awfully produced. Port of Morrow is a sleek pop record front to back, something that vies more deliberately for attention than the surprise, Garden State-fueled success of the band’s earlier work.
This isn’t to say Mercer’s forgotten his roots or sold out or anything like that. In fact, the polish of Port of Morrow seems a logical step for a maturing pop act, especially one with lo-fi roots that aren’t all that lo-fi. It’s always been about the sweet hooks and melodies, and the Shins are the kind of band that can actually benefit from glistening production. The shimmering roll of guitars that back Mercer on the album’s lead single, “Simple Song”, fit the track perfectly, warming the deadpan verses and making the plaintive size of his singing in the choruses all the more towering. The lean surf-rock energy of “Bait and Switch” does thicken with electronic swirls, but at its heart it channels the band at its most excited, like Mercer is updating the scrappy feel of Oh, Inverted World‘s “Know Your Onion!” with a studio gleam.
In these moments — and most others on the record — Mercer and Kurstin give us, essentially, the Shins we already know. Even when things get quieter, on moody acoustic numbers like “September”, we recognize the link back to songs we’ve heard before. There are electronic swells here that perhaps we haven’t heard before — opener “The Rifle’s Spiral” and the falsetto-heavy title track being the biggest outliers — but really they add up to the same kind of wistful pop tunes we’ve already heard from James Mercer and his band. That is all to say that Port of Morrow is pleasant enough to listen to.
The album has more than its share of troubles, however. Though the songs are buffed to shine here, it isn’t the glare of production that throws them off, but rather the level they’re mixed at. All the effort that went into new electronic layers here seems wasted when all music takes a back seat to Mercer’s high-in-the-mix vocals. The music seem like an afterthought, some sweet monotone to gloss over while you hear Mercer bleat out his lyrics. The basic drum machine beat and airy keys of “No Way Down” sounds pretty anonymous behind Mercer’s decent vocal melody, while “Bait and Switch” loses its shape when the layers muddle everything behind Mercer, who shouts lines like “I’m just a simple man, cursed with an honest heart.”
And therein lies the true problem with Port of Morrow. The sound of the songs, in the end, may be sanded down but it’s never problematic in any real intrusive way. But if the music gives us slight variations on an established sound, lyrically the album is lost, without any truly new ideas to present. Mercer has spoken quite a bit about the effect getting married and having kids has had on his songs, and he has left the brooding young man of past records behind. While that is a smart move, Mercer seems unsure of what to present of his new, more mature vision. The songs are darker — there’s something out there we’ll all have to square with, something horrible somewhere in the world — but they’re also not terribly specific. “The things they taught you, they’re lining up to haunt you,” he sings on “It’s Only Life”, but we never get the lessons or the ways in which they will trouble us. The darkness is out there, but Mercer seems to be pointing to it without ever describing it, let alone saying anything about it.
On top of that, Mercer’s attempt to portray maturity comes off as forced wisdom. The line above from “Bait and Switch” is the kind of self-congratulation presented as confession that represents the album all too well. “I’ve been down this road you’re walking now,” Mercer pines later in “It’s Only Life,” assuring the subject that “It doesn’t have to be so dark and lonesome.” In these moments, Mercer conjures that former brooding young man of earlier records to assure us he’s learned something he needs to pass on. The Mercer we’re presented with on Port of Morrow — the narrator, of course — seems certain he knows better, and the advice doled out to all the lost yous around him feels awfully condescending. “You blow like a broken kite,” he finger-wags on the spacey sway of “40 Mark Strasse” before asking the girl “Are you gonna let these Americans put another dent in your life?”
The effect in these moments is one of distance. Mercer places himself wholly outside of the action of his songs, and tries to fix the subjects from a distance. Even when he does make simple, sweet admissions — he claims “every single story is a story about love”, giving away his hopeless- romantic scope — he belies it with his certainty. Even the seemingly confessional “For a Fool” talks about when Mercer was a fool, as if his youth was decades ago.
Perhaps what makes these songs so problematic lyrically is that they rely on the same basic images over and over again. The sea and the ocean and water are constantly repeated. Two different songs make lemonade-related images and, most glaringly, nearly every song in here sings about a heart. Hearts are everywhere in Port of Morrow, but it’s hard to see just what is in them, beyond a shapeless worry, a youthful foolishness Mercer seems eager to distance himself from. Moments like “Simple Song” and “The Rifle’s Spiral” show Mercer’s knack for melody and song shape are still intact, but here he struggles to find something new to say with those tools. For all the talk that’s bound to come up over the album’s production, Port of Morrow‘s problem isn’t how it sounds, but rather what it’s saying — which, whatever it is, doesn’t have a whole lot at stake.