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The Shins have gone through a few significant changes since we last saw them in 2007. The first and most glaring difference is a reduction of members down to simply James Mercer, giving him the daunting task of creating Port of Morrow with just producer Greg Kurstin by his side. But the alteration which this year’s effort truly brings to light is how ordinary this band’s sound has become. It doesn’t keep Port of Morrow from being a solid enough record in its own right, but for a band whose roots were inspiring and creative, The Shins are starting to appear fairly commonplace.
It’s a path most artists take, the beaten trail towards stronger, more defined production. Along the way though it seems some forget that writing a catchy tune or two won’t turn many heads when an album’s sound veers towards the ubiquitous alternative style. Great tracks like “Simple Song” and “September” rise and fall with Mercer’s tightened vocal work, begging questions of why he removed most if not all of the distance found in earlier works. Not to sound adverse to change, but progression for progression’s sake lacks the weight of inspired alterations. Port of Morrow may have been the next logical step in The Shins’ discography, but it seems to have lost any audible uniqueness outside of Mercer’s occasional yells.
Luckily the album as a whole gains whole measures of substance from Mercer’s lyrics, a staple throughout his song-writing years and no different here. Metaphors work themselves slowly through, as he lets both modern and classic items represent a range of emotions. He proclaims with humility “I’m just a simple man/Cursed with an honest heart/Watch me go and tear it all apart” in “Bait and Switch,” an apt summary of the album’s themes as a whole. Port of Morrow is a portrait of reflection and hope among imperfection, layered naturally into every track. The only qualm I have here is that no particular emotion is too strongly felt, because of the album’s unyielding feel of optimism within its upbeat style.
It’s the musicianship that wanes here, simple guitar riffs lilting above a piano that feels too far back to be necessary. On occasion a track like “Fall of ’82″ will use these elements to pull an emotion or two out, but things quickly muddle down to a generic sound. Complex instrumentation would certainly not fit within the confines of Port of Morrow, with its subtle themes and tendency towards charm instead of ingenuity, but the simplicity here doesn’t add or subtract anything. It’s possible that a lack of memorable arrangements may not have any effect on potential listeners, but for those who need the whole package Port of Morrow is merely acceptable here.
Is Port of Morrow an album for you then? If you belong in the crowds enamored with The Shins’ older material, fresh and full of potential, I personally believe that Port of Morrow shows the band’s age in a disconcerting way. But as an indie album, it still has quite a bit of life in it. “Simple Song” is a great track, one which can plant itself in your head yet still feel significant when reduced down to its lyrics. Many albums from here on out in 2012 will outshine Port of Morrow, but it’s enjoyable if you listen to it as spring blooms and the world begins to look brighter.