Port of Morrow by The Shins
In a scene from the film Garden State, Natalie Portman offers her headphones to Zach Braff in a neurologist’s waiting room. She claims the song playing will change his life. Traversing the fictional confines of Garden State and into in the context of the real world, The Shins’ breakthrough song "New Slang," off the album Oh Inverted World would change millions of listeners’ lives—from then on it would be difficult to disassociate this song, and The Shins’ sound in general, from a movie about two mentally misplaced twenty-somethings in New Jersey. More importantly, the film gave the indie alternative band from Albuquerque, New Mexico a new level of exposure.
Eight years later, The Shins’ newest slang is their fourth studio album Port of Morrow, on which lead vocalist James Mercer upholds the band’s entrancing, ethereal and eclectic indie-rooted reputation while introducing a selection of electronic sounds that are both surprising and refreshing. While The Shins tend to deliver a reprieve in a milieu of pop soup that can burden our musical lives, little in this album escapes the wake of their previous recordings. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing depends on personal expectation—good for those wanting to stick with what works, bad for those who are bored with it.
Port of Morrow opens with “The Rifle’s Spiral,” augmenting listeners’ auditory interest with spacey, electronic effects. Slower songs like "It's Only Life” and "September" are less exciting melodically but recite relatable messages regarding returns from trying times. On “It’s Only Life” Mercer sings, "I guess it's only life. It's only natural/We all spend a little while going down the rabbit hole," while “September” delivers a similar theme: “I've been selfish and full of pride/She knows deep down there's a little child/ but I've got a good side to me as well/and it's that she loves in spite of everything else.”
Also entertaining a return-from-rock-bottom notion, "Fall of 82" is one of Port of Morrow’s more memorable tracks instrumentally. The band employs horns to triumphantly announce, “You were my lifeline when the world was exploding, footholds eroding/Had you never been my friend I wouldn’t be/quite what you see/I wouldn’t be the man I am.” Port of Morrow concludes with its title track, which effectively punctuates the album in all its whimsy. Mercer's hypnotic harmonies, comparable to Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne, construct a dreamlike state as the record gradually and gracefully “oohs” and "aahs" to a close.
If there is one word to describe Port of Morrow it is this: effortless. Not to say that the album was necessarily simple to conceive, but that it is an effortless composition to listen to. The mellow melodies blend flawlessly with Mercer's airy vocals, while reflective lyrical content strikes an easily relatable chord. The layered vocals are key to cultivating this fluid sound, so that even the upbeat compositions could potentially sing listeners to rest.
From Port of Morrow to the imagined realm of Garden State, it is apparent that The Shins possess the ability to transform a mundane occurrence into something emotional and dramatic. In the world of cinema, the actions of a scene cannot be disconnected from accompanying music without pressing the mute button. But we compose the soundtrack for our own soundtrack, and it is only fair to give Port of Morrow consideration before pressing mute. Is Port of Morrow as life changing as Portman's character's claim about "New Slang"? It all depends on the context.
Release Date: March 20, 2012
Stars: 3 out of 5