SAME FORMULA; NEW RESULTS
I must admit that I took my share of subtle digs at The Shins for their Saturday Night Live performance a few weeks ago. I can’t say enough that this doesn’t stem from any sort of dislike or distaste for the band. Rather, I’ve just always felt as if every single Shins’ song ever has sounded the exact same to me. Maybe I wasn’t mellow enough yet or didn’t study James Mercer’s lyrics as closely as I should have, but they all just kind of blended together in my head to one massive conglomerate of soft strings, easy tempos and high-pitched vocals. If not for the kooky music video for “Australia,” I am not sure that I could tell you how any specific song of theirs goes. So when I saw their performance on SNL last weekend, I just wrote it off as more of the same. It sounded mellow, stringy and had James Mercer singing something that looked important because he closed his eyes while he did it.
Alas, I admit that I was quick to judge Port of Morrow, which was released earlier this week to resounding praise from just about everyone. You can now add my distinguished opinion to list of supporters. It’s really not that they threw some curveball at me or suddenly busted out an LP of post-punk electronic tracks. No, they went back to the same formula again and again and again. The strings are still there, the mellow-feel-good-vibe is pulsating throughout, and James Mercer repeatedly delivers with his welcoming vocals. But, like I said, that can be found on all of their previous releases. This time around, it just seems so much more complete. The songs seem to pack an added punch and some degree of distinction. While the acoustic guitar leads the way, you can hear much fuller instrumentals on every track as they’re stocked up with multiple drums, multiple guitars and even multiple keyboards. Mercer himself even tries his hand playing a lap steel and a glockenspiel.
It’s old news by new that James Mercer basically gave all of the previous members of The Shins a pink slip and stacked his deck with some new toys. It totally pays off as they make an old formula sound quite rejuvenating. “Simple Song,” at face value, is little more than a slow building pop anthem (a metafictional one at that, but nonetheless). However, with Mercer’s always charming and sentimental lyrics and that extra oomph I mentioned (mostly in the percussion) puts the song over the top. It’s still pop, but it’s absolute pop bliss. The fact that it goes right into the single-in-waiting “It’s Only Life” allows the album to hit its stride in just three tracks. “It’s Only Life” is another basically composed tune, but is bastioned with a faded dreariness for an emotionally satisfying sway-tune. Just ten minutes in and I’m completely sold on the whole thing. It does little to squander its streak after that. It hits its lulls (the oddly paced “Bait and Switch”), but more than makes up for it with the jammin’ on “Fall of ‘82” or the tumbling macabre of the title track.
What’s most impressive is how many other artists they manage to evoke with such a straightforward strategy. They reminded me of Elvis Costello, Steely Dan, The Eagles, The Police, U2 and even the Black Keys at various points throughout the entire album. It’s not experimental. It’s not new wave. It feels more like an album of standards than anything, but there’s really no other way to say it. The thing is just good.