Natalie Portman was wrong. In Garden State, when she lowered a pair of headphones on to Zach Braff’s head and told him, “This song will change your life,”—she was wrong. The song was “New Slang,” by Portland, Oregon based band The Shins, and The Shins were not in the business of changing lives.
This was 2004. The Shins had spent the past three years writing concise, melancholic pop songs and also happened to be completely relentless: their stuff all but demanded to be sung alone, in the car—it was that catchy. On the band’s debut single, 2001’s “Caring is Creepy,” singer/songwriter James Mercer instructed listeners thusly: “Hold your glass eye. Hold it in.” No one who heard the song knew what the hell he meant by this. Everyone who heard it sang along anyway.
People compared The Shins to The Byrds because both groups love using reverb, and to The Doors because both groups employed an organist. Most times, they sounded like neither: the band had created a unique sound for itself—shimmering and ethereal, bright and sad. By the time Garden State was released, The Shins had released two albums of unassuming, idiosyncratic pop. Both were very strong. Neither was life changing. Then Natalie screwed everything up.
Thanks to the movie, The Shins got popular. Listeners flocked to the band, their expectations understandably high. The band retreated to the studio, and got to work writing an album expansive enough to fulfill those expectations. In 2007, that album was released: it was called Wincing the Night Away. It was an arena rock album.
A prescient move, if you think about it: Wincing debuted at #2 on the Billboard Top 200, and sold 118,000 copies in its first week—The Shins had written songs big enough to fill arenas because, suddenly, they were big enough to fill arenas. They sounded life changing, or at least weighty enough to be up to the task. The only problem is that they weren’t very good. They sounded bloated, and almost somnambulistic—a haze of fuzzed-out bass and epicene crooning. Nobody liked the album. That included The Shins.
The band’s new LP—Port of Morrow, out March 20th on Aural Apothecary/Columbia Records—is intended as a disavowal of their arena rock flirtation: a back-to-basics album that is simple, unadorned, and raw. How simple? Its lead single is called “Simple Song.” And it is, indeed, a simple song.
The rhythm section is the first thing you notice: they seem to be playing The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby”—that is, playing one of the most elemental beats in all rock ‘n’ roll. The drums are crashing and insipid; they sound almost militaristic: one kind of suspects that, when the group fired drummer Jesse Gonzalez in 2009, they accidentally hired a drum major to replace him. I felt compelled to write Mercer and explain the difference between the two.
Speaking of Mercer: His voice is stronger on “Simple Song”—on all of Morrow, really—than it has ever been before. Gone is the whispery falsetto of past Shins’ albums: now, his voice is a piercing, assertive tenor. Too bad he is using it to sing platitudes. Lyrically, Morrow marks a low point for Mercer’s songwriting. “This is just a simple song,” he sings, “to say what you done.” Oh, OK—I appreciate your letting me know, man. This is uninspired, unsophisticated music, though it sounds cheerful enough: the overall effect is that of being bludgeoned by an overstuffed pillow.
Take album opener, “The Rifle’s Spiral:” the band is tighter than it has been on any previous Shins song—the rhythm section plays with a confidence it has never before attained, the guitars chime like church bells, and Mercer’s voice leaps into a high register he has only ever toyed with, but never embraced. They are in their prime. The song itself, th=ough, is utterly forgettable. I have heard it fifteen times already, and I still have trouble remembering the chorus. It, like all of Port of Morrow, is very simple.
A back-to-basics album: Port of Morrow is supposed to be one, but it is actually a departure. Its songs are brutal, ham-fisted, and artless—things The Shins never were before. This is as far from early tracks like “Caring is Creepy” as the band has ever been before. The Shins have stopped trying to change lives, but I wish they would start again. Too much ambition is always better than too little.