After departing the mighty Sub Pop label following the minor disappointment of their third studio effort ‘Wincing the Night Away’, Shins leader James Mercer (much like The Fall being Mark E Smith The Shins are essentially Mercer himself) fired half of his band, became a movie actor (bagging the lead in US indie feature ‘Some Days Are Better Than Others’ in 2010), went over big as the melodic half of Broken Bells and spent the best part of 5 years coming up with a new record that could be considered worthy of the band that were so famously described as having the potential to ‘change your life, man’ in Zach Braff’s brilliant Garden State.
Port Of Morrow is definitively not the album hardcore fans would hope for – it certainly doesn’t hark back to their beautiful, ghostly debut ‘Oh Inverted World’ nor their psychedelic pop charmer follow-up ‘Chutes Too Narrow’. This is a simple step on from ‘Wincing’ – a step further into the mainstream, further into the radio-friendly and smoothly produced and a sad step away from uniqueness and vitality.
For the most part it’s made up of ‘70s FM radio style mid-pacers like the promisingly titled ‘Fall of 82’ which is reminiscent of recent, weaker Weezer ‘tunes’ – all gentle riffs, half-ideas and radio shiny. Similarly we have the broad strokes and even broader themes of the Neil Diamond aping ‘It’s Only Life’ (really?) that has an admittedly vast chorus but is, ultimately, very similar to Journey – there’s also the lyrical delight of “You used to be such a lion / Before you got into all this cryin’”to be suffered through on that particular track. Good luck.
The generic US indie by numbers of ‘No Way Down’ could be any AOR band from the 90s, and despite having some of the strongest imagery on the record with evocative lines like “Make me a drink strong enough to wash away / The dishwater world they said was lemonade” there’s no making up for lyrical crimes like ‘For A Fool’s “Taken for a fool, yes I was / And I was a fool”, a track that is generally tiresome but becomes funny towards the end when he starts dropping Foreigner style stadium rock backing vocals all over the place like they were on fire.
On the plus side, and admittedly there seems there isn’t one, but there really is -as the album goes on you’ll find tucked away towards the end a trio of tracks that stand out like throbbing thumbs from this morass of mediocrity; ‘The Rifle’s Spiral’ is a weird, tense little tune that moves along in a jerking, dancing kind of way with neat beats clashing against sweet, soaring vocals (it’s a rare occasion where Mercer actually sounds like himself and not straining to sound like something else) to create a unique sounding album highpoint.
Following directly is the sweetly plucked acoustica of ‘September’ which borrows a little of that early Shins feel, that disembodied, shimmering vocalising, the strangely comforting otherworldly guitar twangs and lyrics as good as “Love is the ink well when her body writes”. There’s simplicity, logic and poetry here that hints at what a great record this could have been.
Finishing up the triumvirate of triumph is the by-now familiar single ‘Simple Song’. While it may have taken a while to click as a lead track here it’s a strident success. Mercer finally happens uponthe formula he’s been getting wrong for most of the record – it’s strong without stupidity, powerful without overpowering, anthemic without silliness and it ties his knack for quirky melody to a superb power pop stomp worthy of The Raspberries and boasts the album’s perfect moment – at the end of the first chorus as you swing into the second verse with the lyric ‘My life in an upturned boat’ time seems to stop for a moment and you are suspended inharmony.
Yet, this is all too little too late and dragged down further by filler like the falsetto meander of the title track,the middling, near-invisible ‘Bait and Switch’ and the vaguely shrugging and nodding goodbye closer ’40 Mark Strasse’, we’re ultimately mired in a record filled with generalities, vagary, blandness and pomp that, despite it’s few glowing moments does indeed sound like a mis-step of ridiculous proportions for such an obviously major talent.
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