The Shins - Port of Morrow

If much of The Shins' latest, Port of Morrow, sounds a hell of a lot like a number of high profile composers got together for a collaboration a la The Traveling Wilburys - er, the superstar group concept, that is, not the Wilburys' sound as such - that's because the guy who bedrocks the group, James Mercer, knows rock's progressive pop back history, and everywhere you go on this disc, you're going to hear elements of Jeff Lynne, Robin Hitchcock, Brian Wilson, Kevin Gilbert, Teardrop Explodes, Beatles, T. Rex, and God only knows how many other solid writers. Then there's the singer-guitarist constant resort to an angelic falsetto, something we just don't get enough of nowadays, not by a long shot. Too, the layering of each cut is hypnotic and, amid the subtlety of a gauzily mellifluous approach, that rapidly turns narcotic.

Mercer, as said: the center of the wave, understands how to flesh out gentle melodies and rhythms. It's almost shocking when you realize there's nothing here all that hooky, everything instead leading into everything else, a constant flow, happily at one with with eddying breezes, sunshine, and starglow. This isn't dark music, though it's quite introspective and externally admonitory:

"Dyed in the wool, you've been cornered by a natural desire
You want to hop along with the giddy throng through life
But how will you learn to steer when you're grinding all your gears?"

...and, while the lyrics may be analytically critical, the music is hopeful 'cause things were learned, and errors will not be repeated, as shown in "For a Fool":

"Taken for a fool
Yes I was, and I was a fool
Following their rules
Guess I was a very honest tool
Taken for a fool
Yes I was because I was a fool"

A slightly circus-y feel pops up in the follower, "Fall of '82", redeeming the spirit of that crestfallen interlude. Life is, after all a circus: it has fools and tiger tamers and dancers and aerialists and a ring master…the entirety of which we all are if we're perceptive enough to pick up on the fact, 'cause James learned that long ago. All the music and words are his, as is the hard-won knowledge and artistry, but the backing ensembles - and they shift a lot throughout the disc - is classic in its matrixing of the whole sound, the zeitgeist, often orchestrally bent and wondrously floating. Port of Morrow is one of those affairs that make you feel good, sonics bursting with mannered exhilaration, echoes deliciously eerie, and lyrics pensive. It's no wonder that the evolution started indie, went to the Sub Pop label, and now has landed at the doorstep of the gigantic Columbia. There's a classicality here that recalls the Zombies Oracle and Odyssey, Love's Forever Changes, and other works which continue to dazzle, resisting the rust of age, puzzling in their mysteries but endlessly generative of precisely what makes art the summit of human experience.

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