Review: Port of Morrow (The Shins)

The Shins, fronted by musical mastermind James Mercer, have been a beacon of musical hope in the genre of “indie pop” since they released their first LP under the name Flake Music back in 1997. “When You Land Here, It’s Time to Return” — The title of their debut release beckons still to those with an eager heart and set of ears.

Since then, Flake Music has become The Shins, who have become far more than James Mercer probably ever intended. Oh, Inverted World stole our hearts with its lo-fi allure and unsuspecting melodic charm, Chutes Too Narrow filled our minds and hearts with lyrical brilliance and wise melodic philosophy, and Wincing the Night Away taught us to appreciate the uncanny whim and wit of an electronic-tinged soundscape. Five years since our last musical transmission from The Shins has seen members gained and lost, and sounds lost and found — All in preparation for 2012’s Port of Morrow, the band’s fourth full-length release.

And it is, simply put, exactly what Shins fans should expect — Unsuspecting sounds and surprising styles in every form and fashion.

First of all, there are trumpets in “Fall of ’82.” Trumpets. Soothing, sweeping trumpets with an instantly-vintage classicality thought to be unknown, even in Mercer’s naturally versatile playbook. There is a blues-tinted lead guitar melody in the musically gorgeous slow-jam known as “For a Fool.” And sure, “Turn a Square” from Chutes Too Narrow has a stompin’ blues attitude, but it’s in a completely different vein and is a whole other side of the “blues influence” coin from “Fool.”

And certainly, there are many tunes that conjure up more traditional “Shins” sounds — Uptempo tunes”Bait and Switch” and “Simple Song” circle around Wincing the Night Away territory with their surf-rock shuffle and their electronic-shaded synth shards (respectively), and mellow track “September” is nearly a rewrite of older melodies (or, more flatteringly: a stew made from “Red Rabbits,” “Pink Bullets” and perhaps even a bit of “Young Pilgrims).

Yet, many of the other sounds are a third brand of experimentation: Sonic evolution. The stimulating and contagious rhythm pillaring the mesmerizing “No Way Down” is nearly indescribable (though instantly memorable), the dynamic and anthemic pacing of opener “The Rifle’s Spiral” is alternatively alluring and haunting, and the wicked title track finale is scheming and satiable in one bite.

While the music takes many wonderful detours and side-roads, the lyrics actually seem to have taken a backseat altogether, in some cases. “For a Fool” and “It’s Only Life” are mere shells of what Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow -era Shins would have held high in pride. Unoffensive phrases like “Taken for a fool / Yes, I was / Because I was a fool” and “It’ll take awhile / But we can figure this thing out” are barely butter on a plate of unleavened bread. Surely, the tunes are still admirable, but the simplicity of the lyrics overall is something not easily digested in the grumbling bowls of a hungry Shins fan.

The production method used for the record is also unusual for the Shins — The atmospheres of the tunes are clean, crisp, and modern to a T (and this sterility actually fits the record’s vibe, generally speaking). It’s similar to that of Wincing the Night Away‘s vibe, but with even cleaner vocal compression and shinier soundscapes.

In all, Port of Morrow is a Shins album unlike any other — Just like each release before it. Scorn it, savor it, loathe it, inhale it. Expect nothing, receive wonder. Presume expectation, lose understanding. It’s one of those things that seems to be using potions to tie your head to the sky in wonder and unpredictability, if you will..