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First week’s impressions on the new The Shins album

24/03/2012
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There’s a line between something classic and something worn-out; a feeling of instant familiarity either because of hitting close to something universally loveable which breathes with the magic of countless golden predecessors, or because it’s simply something that feels too obvious and well-trodden. James Mercer’s greatest gift to musicdom has always been his wizardry at classic-sounding melodies. The Shins albums are filled to brim with melodies and musical passages that sound instantly magical and almost classic in their very nature. But the line between classic and cliché is thin and Port of Morrow’s dubious honour is that it’s the first time where Mercer ends up leaning over the wrong side of the balance beam. For every moment of sheer brilliance The Shins’ fourth album offers there’s a moment that brings forth eery recollections of B-class singer/songwriter formulas and children’s show musical moments.

Port of Morrow never betters its opening duo, a double-smacker so brilliant that you’re already planning your own little Mercer shrine when they’re on for the first time. “The Rifle’s Spiral” is the first Shins track that has force to it and it’s the closest Mercer is probably ever going to get to an aggressive-sounding rocker (which isn’t very near admittedly but A for effort), and it sounds marvellous. The drum section, in particular, is an utter delight and wonderfully pounds behind Mercer’s trademark melodies and the song’s energetic thrust. “Simple Song” on the other hand is a classic, archetypical Shins song in all the best possible way, being exactly the sort of thing Mercer does best and sounds just as brilliant as one would imagine. Port of Morrow never betters its opening gambit though, and goes about it in a somewhat more disappointing way as Mercer flicks to the other side of that one balance beam. Most of Port of Morrow sounds like its repeating ideas of so many other indie pop acts that have come before rather than Mercer making his own mark on evergreen musical ideals. In some ways, a chunk of Port of Morrow sounds even clichéd in how typically lovely and sweet it sounds, and the dèjá vu isn’t helped by the lyrics which veer a little too far into the worn and tiresome “I know life’s rough now but you’ll make it through ^__^” territory.

It is an enjoyable enough album and there’s moments that definitely make for a good listen, in forefront the surf-pop of “Bait and Switch” and the falsetto-lead, atmospheric title track. The wonk is that it never does quite enough to overcome the fact that it’s all been heard before a bit too much, and in doing so (or not doing so) there’s very little special or intriguing in the album. It’s a good listen if in a Shinsy mood but not such a good listen that it would belong in any future lists of what made 2012 a good year. The annoying thing is that it somewhat casts doubt on Mercer himself because in a way this sort of result was easily to be guessed: the first two Shins album were similar cases where certain highlights reigned o’er everything else and made you feel interested about the group, and perhaps it’s simply the case that the damn excellent Wincing the Night Away, the album where Mercer started to feel like a brilliant songwriter, was just a fluke. Hope not, but Port of Morrow isn’t here to convince you otherwise. It’s a pile of swell songs, some more so and some less so, but to its detriment it trods ground that’s been walked on countless times before and doesn’t do anything to stand out from the crowd.

(DISCLAIMER: I fully have the right to go back on my word in the near future should the album grow on me; usually I don’t really ramble about things in a week’s notice exactly because of this phenomenon. Sometimes though… sometimes you get that sort of nagging feeling in the back of your head that says you’re never going to form a notable friendship with a particular album. Port of Morrow gives me that feeling)


Simple Song

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