Just good background music? Sarah Finegold '15 is disappointed by The Shin's latest album.
After a very long five years, The Shins are finally back with a new album; or better yet, lead singer James Mercer is back with a new album. After all, he is the only remaining member of the original band. Since the alternative rock group released their first album in 2000, it has gained considerable popularity by releasing two more stellar albums. In 2009, Mercer announced his new project Broken Bells, a collaboration with producer Brian Burton (a.k.a. Danger Mouse). While Broken Bells enjoyed sweet success, The Shins signed a new contract with Mercer’s own label and experienced a wide range of lineup changes due to “creative differences.” With new additions to the band like Modest Mouse drummer Joe Plummer and Yuuki Matthews of Crystal Skulls, one would expect the new album to be stylistically quite different. However, Port of Morrow makes it clear Mercer’s style has prevailed. Port of Morrow sounds quintessentially Shins, heavily driven by harmony and a plethora of different instruments. But while the album boasts the old style, it lacks the old passion.
It is understandable that despite the changes in lineup the music still sounds eerily similar. The Shins have a bit of a formula going on: the unique spine tingling croon of James Mercer, ambitiously original instrumentals and bizarre, evocative lyrics. Clearly it has worked in the past, so why change it now? Nevertheless, some things have changed. The sound has matured into something a lot cleaner. In the band’s past work, the instrumentals have been known to overwhelm the vocals. The guitars and synthesizers would happily rage away while the lyrics took the backseat and became a veritable mush. Some of the lyrics in the older songs are virtually impossible to understand. This is not necessarily a criticism; the songs were so infectious and catchy belting along to in gibberish. Understanding the lyrics is, however, not a problem in Port of Morrow. The instrumentals are calmer and not as overpowering as they used to be.
But while the vocals get a long awaited focus in this album, the melodies are distinctly lackluster. The album plays like one long, mellow and boring song. This is the defining difference between Port of Morrow and the past work of The Shins: there are no real stand-out tracks. Oh, Inverted World had “New Slang.” Chutes Too Narrow had “So Says I,” and Wincing the Night Away had “Australia” and “Turn on Me.” While Port of Morrow shows a clear maturity in production, it is devoid of the grittiness that made The Shins spectacular. The new, crisper sound is a veritable symphony of meh.
If there’s one song on the album that surpasses the rest, it’s the single “Simple Song.” “Simple Song” takes the cleaner style and makes it work. It cleverly escalates so that it starts with a calmer combination of instrumentals but evolves into an ebullient whirlwind of melody. The song also repeatedly uses the same pleasantly tactile simile, “you feel like an ocean made warm by the sun.” Seeing The Shins achieve lyrical success is a welcome change, as some of their older work (once you look up the lyrics, as understanding them is a task in itself) is a little nonsensical and kooky. Maybe I’m just being dense, but does “Foals in winter coats / White girls of the North / Fire past one, five and one / They are the fabled lambs of Sunday ham” mean anything to you?
Two other fairly effective tracks are “It’s Only Life” and “No Way Down.” “It’s Only Life” boasts a catchy bell riff and a stirring chorus. “No Way Down” similarly hooks musically (in an electronically infectious kind of way), but is decidedly more upbeat than the rest of the album. Herein lies the problem; the album cannot qualify as melancholic or emotional, but is too placid to be considered upbeat. This strange middle ground is what makes the album so average, and it’s why I can safely say that no other songs are worth mentioning. They aren’t offensive, just nothing special.
On a positive note, the album as a cohesive unit has a tranquil effect, almost like a white noise machine. It is easy to imagine that a long series of consistently slow, interestingly coordinated noises would make good background music. And that’s what this really is. Good background music. It isn’t bad, it’s just not particularly interesting. Better luck next time James Mercer. Maybe you’ll wow us with the next Broken Bells album.