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The Shins transcend genre and decade in ‘Port of Morrow’

Alex Kilpatrick | Monday, March 26, 2012

What is the Port of Morrow?

According to The Shins’ lead singer and frontman James Mercer, the Oregon-based band named its fourth and latest album after a port authority that neither he nor any of the band members have visited in Boardman, a city on the Columbia River.

Mercer explained the LP title in the United Kingdom-based music webzine “Drowned in Sound.” “There’s a sign by the side of the road that says ‘Port of Morrow’ and I always just wondered about it, I guess … I was thinking of it as death, like what’s beyond the exit point, the ‘port of morrow,’ the port into tomorrow? … Like the ace of spades, port of morrow, life is death, death is life,” he said.

In line with its dark premise and Mercer’s venture into digital music with his side project Broken Bells, “Port of Morrow” certainly has a more digitally layered sound overall than the band’s previous releases. In the album’s opener “The Rifle’s Spiral,” Mercer’s signature falsetto echoes over an impressive sonic bass line with the subtle yet biting lyrics: “You’re not invisible now/You just don’t exist/Your mother must be so proud/You sublimate yourself, drowning us of rich.”

“Simple Song” sounds more upbeat and in tune with The Shins’ usual summery indie pop sound. Booming with both enthusiasm and nostalgia, the song is exactly as Mercer defines it in the chorus: “Well, this is just a simple song/To say what you’ve done./I told you ’bout all those fears/And away they did run.” The piece is the album’s signature simple pop song, both melodically and lyrically.

Although “Port of Morrow” sounds more digital than the 2003 song “Chutes Too Narrow” or 2007’s “Wincing The Night Away,” Mercer attempts to make the new LP somewhat diverse in its reach of sound and genre. Mercer succeeds with a new vocal sound in the soul ballad and title track “Port of Morrow” and tries on psychedelic folk for size in “September.”

The album transcends its decade further with a ’70s new-wave sound in “Bait and Switch,” a ’90s layered Upper Northwest guitar nod in “For a Fool” and an all-American pop rock feel in “No Way Down,” which includes a guitar hook comparable to that of “Jack & Diane.” “Fall of ’82” clearly gives a nod to ’80s soft rock with a muted trumpet solo and completes the album’s overall nostalgic feel.

Overall, The Shins meet expectations for “Port of Morrow” after a five-year hiatus. Mercer proves that although he made the decision to go digital with Danger Mouse in his musical side project Broken Bells, he hasn’t lost his raw talent or gone mainstream since “Wincing the Night Away.” Rather, he’s expanded his horizons and welcomed even more genres and decades of influence into his musical repertoire.

Contact Alex Kilpatrick at akilptr@nd.edu