It might just be me, but the start of 2012 has seemed dismally short of great pop albums.
Thankfully, The Shins have helped remedy this with their first lp for five years – and the first on Mercer’s own label, Aural Apothecary – and it’s full of hooks, great melodies and memorable tunes. Since Wincing the Night Away in 2007, the band has seen an almost complete change in line-up, with James Mercer, now the only original member.
The new album – Port of Morrow – is possibly less guitar, more keyboards oriented than previous lps, but there is no great change in sound. This is not surprising, given that The Shins have always been almost a solo project for Mercer. On this album, his voice dominates, the intelligent, clever pop lyrics front and centre.
The album opens with one of its highlights, Rifle’s Spiral. Flickering guitars, bobbing bass, and bubbling synths provide the backing to a cryptic portrait – ‘viscera unfurls as you rise from your burning Fiat’ and ‘you were always to be a dagger floating straight to their heart’.
Second track, Simple Song, the first single, is, as the title suggests, a more straightforward love song. The song builds up nicely through the first verse and bridge, with backing harmonies and layers of guitar, then falls away beautifully in the chorus, leaving Mercer’s voice and a simple keyboard line to carry the gorgeous melody.
My life is an upturned boat, marooned on a cliff, you brought me a great big flood, and you gave me a lift, girl what a gift, and you tell me with your tongue, and your breath goes in my lungs, and we float over the rift.
It’s Only Life and September are both slower in tempo, both echoing the songs of Neil Finn (this is a good thing). Bait and Switch, on the other hand, is 70s power pop – jerky rhythms, electronic burps and an urgent, manic chorus backdrop a tale of temptation and betrayal – how she got in, I’m not sure that I know, two weeks on and my spine was in traction, my eyes in a basket.
Another album highlight – No Way Down – sounds almost celebratory in tone, while its lyrics describe crooked politics and America’s economic troubles. It’s a curious combination, but the tune is fabulous.
A tiny few are having all the fun, apologies to the sick and the young, get used to their dust in your lungs.
The second half of the album is filled with slower tracks; For A Fool – with its twanging guitar and delicious swoon of a chorus, Fall of ’82 – another portrait, complete with 70’s horns, and 40 Mark Strasse – a song of unrequited love: You play in the street at night, blown like a broken kite, my girl you’re giving up the night, are you gonna let these Americans, put another dent in your life.
The title track finishes the album with more cryptic lyrics – a glimpse of the apocalypse perhaps: Life is death is life, I saw a photograph; Cologne in ’27, and then a postcard, after the bombs in ’45, must have been a world of evil clowns that let it happen, but now I recognise dear listeners, that you were there and so was I.
The Shins are not groundbreakers or experimenters. In fact, their sounds and style are pure 60’s/70’s pop. In fact, on Port of Morrow they sound most like Crowded House, hardly cutting edge, but an indication of the songwriting strength.
The Shins do what they do extremely well, and I’m happy for them to keep on doing it.