It’s to the great credit of indie-rock fans that they’ve stayed on good terms with the Shins for all these years. James Mercer’s approach to songwriting, though celebrated for its quirkiness, is also strongly classicist; in a scene renowned for its attraction to irony and self-involved avant-gardism, the Shins almost single-handedly made a place for earnestness and melodicism. In some sense, Port of Morrow is the classic pop album that Mercer has always been on the verge of making, though that has more to do with its production, which is lusher and cleaner than anything else in the Shins catalogue, and its mostly straightforward melodic sensibility than with the quality of the songs themselves.
Which is not to deny the handful of truly captivating tunes scattered throughout the album’s 10 tracks or the likelihood that many of its subtle strengths will grow more powerful with time. But compared to the first single, “Simple Song,” which broke the Shins’ long hiatus with a splendid, surging pop-rock number suggesting Cheap Trick for Lit majors, most of the songs on Port of Morrow seem slack and not especially purposive. That’s a bit surprising, because the album actually has a strong thematic focus, and its lyrics, which often concern Mercer’s apparently blissful domestic life, are some of the least cryptic he’s ever penned. On “Its Only Life,” he’s sincere to the point of being didactic as he relays the virtues of companionship to a troubled friend who’d rather go it alone, and despite a few brilliant Mercerisms like “Love is the ink when her body writes,” “September” is comprised mostly of literal expressions of devotion: “I’ve got a good side to me as well/And it’s that she loves in spite of everything else” or “When the sun goes down she sheds a darling light.”
This isn’t a bad thing by any means. In fact, Mercer’s heart-on-sleeve songwriting style lends itself naturally to such elegant declaratives. But contentment and commitment, powerful as they feel on the inside, are difficult to translate into the inherently melodramatic language of pop music. “September,” for example, is a shambling number consisting of gently tapped percussion, soft keys and guitars, and one of Mercer’s simplest vocal performances to date. It’s almost too pleasant: Go on and have your flings with sexier and more interesting songs, it seems to be saying, you’ll be back when a few disappointments teach you the value of a sure thing.
After the first four songs, Port of Morrow settles into an overly agreeable groove, moderate in both tempo and volume to the point that it falls to the brass-driven “Fall of ‘82” to give the second half of the album a pulse, even though it recalls Chicago at their least rollicking. Even Mercer’s vocals seem less impassioned than usual. Though Port of Morrow boasts his most technically accomplished singing to date, his mature lyrical perspective is reflected in a more or less blanket disavowal of the whoops and squawks of Chutes Too Narrow, and he takes care to make his soaring high notes sound less piercing.
Endearing as Port of Morrow can sometimes be, it lands altogether too softly to make much of an impact on the first few listens. (It’s telling that one of the best and most experimental songs, “Pariah King,” is relegated to bonus-track status—a decision that’s hard to endorse, but easy to understand since it would be nearly impossible to place the dark, electronica-tinged number anywhere on the album proper.) Given enough time to soak in its sunny vibes and heartfelt lyrics, existing Shins fans will almost certainly grow to appreciate Port of Morrow, but even for them, it will likely remain an album to bask in rather than obsess over. Even Wincing the Night Away, uneven as it was, remained intriguing for its ambiguous sense of menace, but Port of Morrow doesn’t cast any shadows no matter what angle the light hits it from.