Thursday, April 26, 2012

Modern Classics: "Port of Morrow"

The Shins' fourth album Port of Morrow feels relentlessly positive. This may come as a surprise to those familiar with the band's previous work. The Shins' brand of indie rock, starting with 2001's Oh, Inverted World, was marked by an intoxicating blend of wistfulness and melancholy, with a good dose of beguiling lyrics and poppy melodies. The low-fi quality of their recording style added to the gray mood, but also added charm. As The Shins expanded their sound with keyboards and a variety of guitar effects, they also expanded their emotional palette with more upbeat themes over their next two albums, and the recording quality became more defined.

With Port of Morrow (released on March 20th), The Shins sound as crisp as ever, and the results are startling. Songs like "The Rifle's Spiral" and "Simple Song" surge happily forward with resonant percussion and bass, supplemented by shimmering bursts of guitars and synthesizers. Slower, more mid-tempo tracks like "It's Only Life" and "September" create a more subtle and reflective mood, but are no less richly recorded. The album indeed sounds more "produced" than the band's previous outings, but the new sheen suits the songs just fine.

What's particularly striking about Port of Morrow is that each song seems to be on its own separate mission. Despite the shared feeling of optimism, the musical stylings are remarkably distinct from one track to the next. "Simple Song"'s exuberant power chord blasts gel perfectly with lead singer James Mercer's poignant lyrics of finding comfort in the love of a girl. In "No Way Down," a strong, addictive dance beat creates buoyant energy that by this writer's recollection is uncharted territory for The Shins. "For A Fool" establishes a lounge-style, vintage 70's feel with reverb-heavy surf-guitar licks, backed by warm strings. "Fall of '82" has a distinctly Beatles vibe (particularly in the chorus), complete with a nifty trumpet solo following the bridge.

The epic ninth track "40 Mark Strasse" is a wonder to behold. Beginning with a simple acoustic theme, Mercer relates his reflections on observing a young German prostitute on the streets. A potentially titillating subject turns into a surge of empathetic emotion, particularly in the chorus: "Blown like a broken kite / My girl, you're giving up the fight / Are you gonna let these Americans put another dent in your life?" Backed by stunningly beautiful vocal harmonies, the chorus lifts the song to spiritual heights rarely encountered in a rock song. The near-perfect unity of melody and subject matter that is evoked in "40 Mark Strasse" elevates it as a singular piece of art, one that is worth the price of the album alone.

Taken collectively, Port of Morrow feels like a treasure trove of The Shins' greatest hits rather than a cohesively themed album. Each song knows where it's going and unmistakably arrives at its destination, albeit a little too quickly at times. The album's 10 songs clock in at just over 40 minutes, which seem to go by in half that time. This can create an impulse to put Port of Morrow on repeat, which may be another indication that The Shins know exactly what they are doing.