The Shins – Port Of Morrow (Aural Apothecary)


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.

The Shins:

Aural Apothecary:


  1. This is bound to be a really divisive album – I’m inclined to agree with you to some extent that it’s a shift further towards the mainstream, although that doesn’t mean it’s as bad as you make out. If you’re looking for the band that made ‘Oh, Inverted World’, then this isn’t it; That was an album for young folk all full of energy and a passionate desire to be weird and different, whereas Mercer’s been moving towards a more middle-aged world of simpler, more accessible melodies, structures and styles. If you look at it from that perspective, it’s still a cracking bunch of songs. I agree that some of the lyrics are pretty cringeworthy, and for me that’s the real disappointment of this album, but the melodies, production and musical textures on the album are stunning. I love ‘The Rifle’s Spiral’, ‘Bait and Switch’ and ‘Simple Song’, but there’s hidden gems too – ’40 Mark Strasse’ and ‘Port of Morrow’ are both gorgeously atmospheric.

    Also slightly confused by the tracklisting you’re using – the version I have starts with The Rifle’s Spiral and ends with Port of Morrow, with September in the middle… I’m pretty sure that’s the official UK version, so I’m not what you have!

    Great review though – it’s certainly got me thinking a bit more about the album!

  2. As I said on Facebook, Wincing contains my favourite stand alone Shins (i.e Mercer) songs so I’m going to reseve judgement on this until I’ve absorbed it. I slightly disagree that WTNA was a ‘disappointment’ – unless that’s said in a purely commercial sense?

    I hadn’t realised they’d left Sub Pop, that’s a shame.

    Excellently written, argued and balanced review though, thoroughly impressed.

  3. I’m interested to see if the author’s gone back to this album. I initially came to a similar conclusion having listened to it a couple of times.

    However, I’ve been giving it more spins this week and it’s really growing on me. I agree about the throwaway It’s Only Life and For a Fool – the latter sounds like Will Young album filler, frankly. And I’m not that keen on the Costello-aping vocals of Fall of 82, and No Way Down is pretty forgetful.

    But The Rifle’s Spiral and Bait & Switch are really something – both are excellent in my opinion and would fit nicely into Wincing and are stronger songs than some on that album. And I’d echo Rory’s comments on 40 Mark Strasse and Port of Morrow, which on my album are the final two tracks to this and finish it rather nicely.

    I also agree that Mercer’s song structure qualities remain, but with for some reason the lessened quality of lyrics, and also I think a hangover from producing the dreamy pop with Dangermouse for Broken Bells, (the sound to me on songs here are v similar), the stark melodies and vocals of previous records don’t jump out as much, and it’s only by giving the better songs time that they do at all.

    3 stars for me, possibly 3.5, but overall it’s not a world beater by any stretch.

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God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.