A Virginia airport at 5 in the morning on the day SXSW starts, listening to an iTunes stream on crappy airport wi-fi and letting that stream rebuffer a few times on every song: These are not the ideal circumstances in which to hear a much-anticipated album for the first time. Some things, however, are out of our control. And if you have to hear an album that way for the first time, the Shins’ Port Of Morrow is one that can survive the setting as well as anything. James Mercer has never been the world’s most exciting or innovative songwriter, but the trade-off there is that his work sounds remarkably pleasant in just about any setting, even the least pleasant setting imaginable. Port Of Morrow may be the first Shins album in a few years, and the debut of a completely revamped new lineup, but it still sounds very much like a Shins album. And that’s a good thing.
If you saw the Shins live back in the day, you could’ve been forgiven for assuming that keyboardist Martin Crandall was the frontman. He was the only member of the band who carried himself with anything resembling swagger, and the couple of times that I saw them, he was also the one who stood in the middle of the stage and was responsible for the most between-song banter. James Mercer, the band’s true architect, always comported himself like a born sideman, even as he was singing the songs he wrote in front of thousands. But the songs on Port Of Morrow could’ve fit onto any of the previous Shins albums without any awkwardness, even though Crandall is long-gone and the cast of characters playing Mercer’s songs is now completely different. Message sent: The Shins aren’t really a band, and they never were. They’re Mercer’s vehicle for getting his chiming, soothing bread-and-butter college-rock jams out into the world. And that vehicle is still humming along just fine.
“Simple Song,” the first Port Of Morrow single, earned plenty of hosannas when it first appeared a few months ago, and all of them were justified. It’s a magnificent piece of work, majestic and road-trip-ready, and it seemed to augur the best Shins album since, perhaps, Oh Inverted World. But Port Of Morrow isn’t that; it’s one that fits just fine with the last two. Mercer really slams his shit home when he hits it, but the big hits here are frontloaded, and they’re the ones we’ve already heard: “Simple Song,” “Bait And Switch,” “September.” Those songs are excellent, and they’re great evidence of the kind of songwriting firepower Mercer can bring when he’s in the right mode. But moments like that are only half of what makes Mercer special. The other half is this: Even when he’s just coasting, his stuff sounds nice, in an unassuming sort of way. And that’s the rest of Port Of Morrow.
I should specify: Shins songs tend to have a sort of time-release power to them, so it’s entirely possible that some of the album’s other seven songs will sound better and better upon repeated listens. But at this early moment, they sound simply like nicely executed, perfectly agreeable filler — not necessarily a bad moment. A few late-album songs remind me a bit of Cass McCombs, except without that inimitable shambling melancholy. They shuffle quietly and prettily without snagging especially hard in my memory, and they do their job. Port Of Morrow could’ve been something resembling a classic EP. Instead, it’s a nice album, one that won’t embarrass anyone involved. And it’s a clear signal that Mercer will soldier on as always, regardless of who else might hold the other Shins positions at the moment.