The Shins: Port of Morrow – review

From their gently angsty, indie beginnings, the Shins are becoming a more mainstream rock concern – albeit at a cost

There is a theory that a great band is not merely a collection of musicians, but a mysterious, alchemical thing, somehow greater than the sum of its parts. Those who believe it relate as evidence the sagas of bands curiously diminished by the departure of what appeared to be the least important member: REM floundering without drummer Bill Berry; the Smiths lasting two weeks before reinstating errant bassist Andy Rourke; the sense that something indefinable but undeniable was lacking from New Order's albums without Gillian Gilbert.

Any fans of the Shins who adhere to this theory might feel pained by the arrival of Port of Morrow. It's the first Shins album without keyboard player Marty Crandall and drummer Jesse Sandoval, fired by frontman James Mercer after the band's 2007 tour; bassist Dave Hernandez seems to have got the heave-ho at some point during the album's recording. Their departure marks the latest stage in the Shins – or rather Mercer's – fraught progress from the faintly rackety alt-rock band of 2001 debut album Oh, Inverted World to a mainstream concern.

It is telling that Mercer's foil on Port of Morrow is Greg Kurstin, a producer and songwriter who has worked with the Flaming Lips and Beck – and also with Kelly Clarkson and Britney Spears. Port of Morrow obviously doesn't sound like them. Instead, it clearly attempts to shift the Shins away from their indie origins and paint Mercer as a sophisticated songwriter in a lineage that stretches back to the 60s – cue driving, McCartneyesque bassline and subtly Strawberry Fields-referencing guitar on Fall of '82 – but more recently might include Neil Finn and Andy Partridge. The woozy synthesiser that opens the title track is exactly the sort of thing the latter might have come up with around the time XTC and their psychedelic alter-egos the Dukes of Stratosphear started to blur into one.

You can see why Mercer might want to evince a greater degree of maturity on his fourth album. The Shins made their name with introverted angst. "Shut out, pimpled and angry, I quietly tied all my guts into knots," sang Mercer on the song Know Your Onion! from the first album, thus endearing himself both to the makers of a certain kind of film – in which introverted outsiders find love after a series of bittersweet mishaps – and a certain kind of rock fan, epitomised by the Pitchfork critic who spent the first half of his Oh, Inverted World review explaining how, unlike "the majority of Americans", he really hates summer. A decade on, Mercer is a married father of two: tellingly, the only time angst gets a look in, it's either swept aside by his children's unquestioning affection – "I've got a good side to me as well, and it's that she loves," offers September – or viewed retrospectively through the eyes of his long-suffering relations on Fall of '82.

There are moments when you feel elevation to the pantheon of urbane, grownup greats is just what Mercer's songwriting deserves, when his lyrics display an unflashily great, assured turn of phrase – "every single story is a story about love," he sings on 40 Mark Strasse, "both the overflowing cup and the painful lack thereof" – and his melodies sparkle. If you can come up with a chorus as lovely as that on For a Fool, you're probably entitled to give a drummer, who by his own admission struggled to keep up, the elbow, founding member or not. Equally, quiet sophistication of the type Port of Morrow aims for – straightforward guitar rock subtly shaded with electronics, nothing to distract from the songwriting – is a tough thing to pull off, not least because one man's quietly sophisticated is another's deadly dull. It's an album that clearly prizes craft over spontaneity, and at it's least distinguished Port of Morrow could be the work of anyone operating on the border where putatively "alternative" rock shades into something more commercially ambitious – a place where some pretty boring music gets made.

A famous line about the Shins is uttered by Natalie Portman in the film Garden State, where she claimed the song New Slang would "change your life". It's tempting to say that the only lives Port of Morrow will to change are the band members who lost their jobs during its making. But that's a little unfair: if it's not an album to turn the listener into a screaming proselyte, there's still enough magic to make it worthwhile. Growing up in public is hard to do, and not merely because old friendships tend to fall by the wayside. Port of Morrow just about manages it, which is more than most artists do.

Contributor

Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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