James Mercer is a recording artist. Born in the fires of the studio, from The Shins to Broken Bells, his sonic exploits always seem to sound better peppered with the subtle perfection of his buffet of pop accents. Thus the beginning of Port Of Morrow leads off with the best footwith bubbly chimes, zaps, and aerated drums lifting Mercer's signature timbre into battered lyrics, "The Rifle's Spiral" shows Mercer's lyricism and melodicism both remain intact from Oh, Inverted to "Australia," and beyond. It's strange that songs like "Simple Song" feel so flat on SNL but spring to life here-- proving the importance of sound design, and just how much Mercer's creations depend on the details.
With those details, he has written a record that sounds like it simply ignores the fads of independent music from the past five years, a mode sure to please stingy critical minds who grew up in the eighties. It confirms our suspicions that James Mercer IS The Shins, not the other way around-- The rotating lineup is not a convincing argument for his purported shark-jumping. His surroundings are just the means to an end, the band can fluctuate indefinitely (and did), and here we are, ten years of The Shins and still as audibly engaged as ever. Mercer's prowess at writing, recording, and scratching the falsetto with his compositions remains firmly intact. The sonic journey is at times breathtaking without being bombastic art-pop bait (or 'big' in any sense), and the adventurous instrumentals are always grounded in beautiful chord contour and Mercer's melody lines. These are songs, plain and simple.
And many of them are memorable songs. Although first listens weren't immediate, the haunting chorus of "It's Only Life" is one of the year's strongest ballads (from perhaps the best recorded pop-balladeer of the aughts). The flimsy optimism of "No Way Down" is near-perfect Mercery, "how'd we get so far from the sun?" mixed with "oh, all of our working days are done / but a tiny few are having all the fun." The energy is enough to power us through the sleepy "Taken For A Fool," and the very Shins-y "Fall of '82" makes a pretty convincing case that trumpet is the new saxophone as far as instrumental fads are concerned (not that Mercer has subscribed to any of them). The titular "Port Of Morrow" leaves us feeling oddly satisfied as Mercer floats off the disc, setting sail into our consciousness like only a solid album of songs can-- floating in a sea of Mercer's words, all anchoring at will.