The Shins’ “Port of Morrow” produces hopeful earnestness in indie-pop

The Shins new album, "Port of Morrow," earns four out of five stars.

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| Courtesy of stereogum.com

| Courtesy of stereogum.com

| Courtesy of stereogum.com

Mack Hayden and Mack Hayden

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Since the Shins’ last record, musical snobbery has spiked to an all-time high. Namedrop Coldplay in the wrong circle and you’re bound to be stampeded by bloodthirsty hipsters, wildly wielding the jagged edges of shattered Radiohead CDs. In an era of cynicism and ironic detachment, we’re due for an indie album that is earnest, enjoyable and accessible.

“Port of Morrow” both updates and seamlessly continues the trajectory that the Shins began with albums like “Oh, Inverted World” and “Chutes Too Narrow.” They walk in the footsteps of bands like the Smiths and the Magnetic Fields, lyrically whining and pining while accompanied by the jingle-jangle of guitars and synthesizers heading straight for gleeful ecstasy.

Mixture of talent and production

This new album comes with an entirely new line-up as well. It’s the Shins’ first release since 2007’s inconsistent “Wincing the Night Away” and it seems the band’s only constant has been James Mercer’s presence as a frontman. Gathering new players from bands like The Fruit Bats and Modest Mouse, he began developing the architecture for a new sound that was distinctly familiar yet entirely evolved.

After experimenting with acclaimed producer Danger Mouse on his electronic side project Broken Bells, Mercer couldn’t help himself from keeping the new Shins recording out of the laboratory. This album is more experimental than any of their others, unafraid of breaking the stereotypes associated with the band. The melodies are still picture perfect but the instrumentation is slightly more fearless.

Songs full of diverse styles and stories

“Port of Morrow” opens with the bass-slapping bounce of “The Rifle’s Spiral,” assimilating the listener to the lovelorn themes explored in the other tracks. “Fall of ’82” brings together the Rhodes piano of Supertramp with the horn sections of ’70s soul groups to create a beautiful piece of wistfully manufactured nostalgia. “Simple Song” succinctly displays why the Shins exist, without flux, as the perfect indie pop group. They are a concoction made of ’80s mope-rock and ’90s slackerdom distilled through the Beatles’ sound in 1965. With all the right influences in place, the new album foams over on a cup already full of simple songs.

The album’s true highlights are “Bait and Switch” and “No Way Down.” The first is angular and nearly mathematical, guitars stabbing in and out while drumbeats groove like New Wave mariachi. Mercer uses this backdrop to weave a tale about a decent guy in love with a not-so-decent girl. “A creature of habit has no real protection/I’ll tell her I’ll leave if she don’t settle down/She sees it’s a lie on closer inspection.” Furthermore, he’s “just a simple man/Cursed with an honest heart/Why’d she go and tear it all apart?”

Lines like these reveal that docking in the “Port of Morrow” is nothing but the first step on a deeper journey where heartbreak is the only way home. There’s no time for detours through detachment or jumps through jaded hoops.

“No Way Down” is an ode to cosmic displacement. Mercer’s not one to lay his exact meaning on the table, but neither does he shroud his observations in philosophical pretension. The questions laid out here are plain: “What have we done?/How’d we get so far from the sun?/Lost, lost in an oscillating phase/Where a tiny few catch all of the rays.” Stray from whatever light there is in the world and you’re going to end up fumbling about in darkness. Conjecture and confusion become the only options left and the best advice you can be given is “apologies to the sick and young/Get used to the dust in your lungs.”

Communicating hopeful message

Every era has its mouthpiece. The ’60s came home at night to the angsty protests and eventual absurdism of Bob Dylan. The hyper-literate and mopey Morrissey penned the lines sung by dozens of pimply-faced teenagers lost in Margaret Thatcher’s England. Mercer is the next logical link in the chain, a wistful bard for a wistful time. Cynicism can only survive for so long, ultimately rejecting itself as a foundation for comprehension.

The Shins are easily derided as the training wheels of indie music; they’re simply too earnest and poppy for the discerning listener. “Port of Morrow” is the proof that their brand of yearning and hopeful pessimism has more staying power than many were ready to admit.

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