James Mercer, the self-proclaimed auteur behind the Shins, must really, really hate “Garden State.” (Or should.)
That, you may recall, was the 2004 movie in which writer-director Zach Braff had Natalie Portman promise his character that listening the band would “change your life.” Every time a Shins record has come out since then (which has been all of twice), a passel of once favorably inclined fans and critics has rushed to render judgment: Not life-changing enough.
If you’re willing to set the bar just a little lower for “Port of Morrow,” which Mercer has recorded with an all-new crew of musicians under the Shins’ banner, you might be newly bowled over, just as so many of us were a decade ago, by a gift for melody and rich facility with language that long ago set the Shins apart from any indie-pop pack.
But even then, it’s hard to avoid the nagging feeling that something is missing here, and that that something might be a band.
You don’t have to be the kind of personnel purist who’d refuse to forgive Mercer for sacking his former support musicians to recognize that a tradeoff has taken place as the Shins have become essentially a studio concoction. At least he’s working with a production wizard as accomplished as Greg Kurstin, who’s the auteur behind an act of his own, the Bird and the Bee.
Together they create rock soundscapes that are simultaneously multi-layered and sound like real musicians are involved, which maybe ought to be enough. But even as you’re admiring the instrumental depth beneath the sheen, you’ll have a hard time shaking the sensation that everything will sound better live, or at least have more of the propulsive force that made 2003’s “Chutes Too Narrow” a power-pop classic.
But, speaking of “life-changing,” Mercer seems lyrically preoccupied at times by how having two young children has or hasn’t altered his worldview. In the album’s closing title song – its longest and spookiest – he goes up into an uncertain falsetto to describe the predatory circle of life as “a fact of life I know to hide from my little girls.” “There are flowers in the garbage,” he concludes in the haunting final lines, “and a skull under your curls.”
Up until then, the album is at its best when Mercer and his hired hands work up some old-fashioned nervous energy, as in the unabashedly guitar-driven “Bait and Switch,” an uncharacteristically basic rocker about a girl messing a guy’s head up. On the gentler side, “September” is such a Beatlesque ballad that you’d swear Mercer is forcing himself to hold back a British accent.
The chorus of the nostalgic ballad "40 Mark Stresse" bears a strong resemblance to "Sara Smile," of all things. This may or may not be coincidental, since co-producer Kurstin's act, the Bird and the Bee, recorded that on a Hall and Oates tribute album a couple of years back.
For anyone coming to the Shins anew from rudimentary, bare-bones indie-rock, the sonic riches of “Port of Morrow” might seem like a godsend. But for longtime fans, the album may seem a little like one of the albums R.E.M. made in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, after Bill Berry left the group -- luscious, but a bit listless.
If you want an ambivalent kiss on the cheek, “Port of Morrow” is the album for you. If you’d prefer the solid kick in the shankbone that the Shins once provided, you might have to hold out for Mercer and his hired hands to hit your town on tour.