Though these days it's not out of the ordinary to hear somebody say it, James Mercer admits he feels a certain animosity towards the human race, and doesn't feel like committing to anything permanently , ever. During the five years that have gone by since their Grammy nomination for “Wincing The Night Away” (taking Sub Pop to the top of the Billboard chart), his personality seems to have gone through some changes. After his adventures with Danger Mouse in Broken Bells, the Hawaiian disbanded the original Shins, formed fifteen years ago, and now we see different faces on the press photos. On the present website, called Mercer House, we find a new crew formed by Richard Swift, Joe Plummer (Modest Mouse), Yuuki Matthews (Crystal Skulls) and Beck guitarist Jessica Dobson. Now they're releasing this much awaited “Port Of Morrow”, an album which, like everything the Lewis Carroll of indie music makes, goes straight to your lungs like a big ball of oxygen.
“Port Of Morrow” is The Shins' most commercial record to date, but fortunately it's also varnished with a fine layer of his trademark pop beauty. Our hero is truly incapable of writing a bad album. He always manages to make his band sound as great as they possibly can. It's all about preparing the emotional ammunition on paper (the heart, his reputation as a lyricist) and then finding someone to help him channel the musical exuberance bubbling inside his head (the technique, the skill of the hardened musician). While “Chutes Too Narrow” was the work of Phil Ek and “Wincing The Night Away” benefited from the excellent knowledge of Joe Chiccarelli, part of the credits on this album go to Greg Kurstin. In the past, the latter has worked with an army of female artists: Kylie Minogue, Britney Spears, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Lily Allen, Gwen Stefani, Ladyhawke and Little Boots. Mercer has always liked electronica, and at several points on the album he gloats over the high fidelity, like a kid playing with new toys. However there are other, more interesting, influences on the production. He reveals, for instance, that many of his conversations with Kurstin while they were recording were about the Berlin avant-garde of the seventies, with bands like Faust. The German inflection can be heard on the title track, and on “40 Mark Strasse” - named after the name the soldiers at the Ramstein air base (where he lived as a child) gave to the street where the hookers worked (an anecdote that reminds us of Lennon explaining his “Ticket To Ride” as a reference to the Hamburg prostitutes). The curious thing about this German connection is that it brings up the musician's childhood as an influence through, precisely, his fatherhood. Granted, his songs have always chased eternal youth, but now it's easier than ever to imagine a mature man feeling nostalgic about his younger days (furthermore, he often claims to be influenced in his writing by his kids). A man who's past 40 remembering, or so it seems, when he was 12 in “Fall Of ‘82”, and 9 in “Simple Song”. The video of the latter directly fantasises about another kind of legacy: the one Mercer will leave to his “children”, who are none other than his new band members.
Beautifully entitled “Port Of Morrow”, as if it wanted to end up in a near future, The Shins' fourth album sounds as delicious as its predecessors. Gentle and stimulating, it’s exquisite without becoming too much. The release is ruled at all times by that British way of singing that sometimes takes him close to Sting and keeps him floating over oceanic backing vocals. He employs classy arrangements alongside guitars that don't shy away from the solos and, in general, sound like a demonstration of how psychedelically boogie the sixties and seventies were. Some have already frowned, saying that the production deliberately steams over the sound to hide a magic - they say - has been lost. There might be some truth in that; yours truly might even agree. But the difference isn't as pronounced as some want to see it. Rather, what we have to celebrate is how “Port of Morrow” extols the virtues of its author. The virtues with which he wrote the heavenly folk of “Oh, Inverted World”, with which he permanently cemented his career with “Wincing The Night Away”, and which feed the frenzy of what is still his best title to date, “Chutes Too Narrow”. The spirit of the latter is partly recovered here, for example on the already known “Bait And Switch”. Another devastating step forward and master stroke is “Simple Song” - with that hurricane-like power much in debt with The Who - though the song that possibly best describes the open-minded tone of the LP is “Fall Of ‘82”, containing a thousand pop references to guess at.
On the other end, and as Mercer had already announced, the album also has a strongly introspective side to it. It turned out more emotive and less unusual than on other occasions. Nevertheless, contrary to what he had said earlier, he couldn't resist including ballads like “For A Fool” (partly weighed-down by his love for Wilco), schmaltzy phrases like “every single story is a story about love” ( “40 Mark Strasse”) and “love is the ink in the well when her body writes” (on “September”, reminiscent of the Beck of “Sea Change”), alongside his usual cultured quotes, like the one regarding Pontus and the ancient Greek seas (also appearing on “September”), a beautiful marine metaphor. Extra points for “No Way Down” - a reflection on the industrial decline in the USA - and the very Radiohead-like “Port Of Morrow”; songs that prove that the Albuquerque band's shine is as blinding as ever.