Just earlier this year, The Shins seemed to be a thing of the past. The fervent endorsement of the band by Natalie Portman’s character in the independent movie “Garden State, ” which couldn’t help but heighten its popularity, will hit its tenth anniversary next year. “Wincing the Night Away” was released in 2007 amid well-deserved hype, and the band seemed poised to enter the upper echelons of rock greatness. However, each subsequent year passed by without another release. When frontman James Mercer took time to collaborate with Danger Mouse in forming the successful electronic duo Broken Bells, a new Shins album seemed unlikely. But the band has released the anticipated “Port of Morrow,” an album that is equally unassuming and detail-ridden. After a five-year drought, “Port of Morrow” is, as Mercer puts it in “September,” “a curse undone.”
“Port of Morrow” demands attention right from the album’s opening notes—robotic bleeps interspersed with pulsing keyboards and soaring synths. “The Rifle’s Spiral,” the first song, is a high-energy set of philosophical ramblings appropriate for a large concert hall. Where early 2000s Shins blended cheery harmonizing with silly lyrics about dodos and onions that exposed a childish sensibility, the new Shins have returned with a chip on its collective shoulder. Despite its chipper tempo and heavy tambourine use, the track is rife with gloomy, existential musings: “You’re not invisible now / you just don’t exist” and “You were always to be a dagger floating straight to their heart.” If anything, “The Rifle’s Spiral” is proof that a tambourine and a sense of despondency can coexist well.
The Shins continue to wed apocalyptic lyrics with laid-back instrumentation throughout, but the band loses some energy in the middle of the album. Eighth track “For a Fool,” which contains unexpectedly melodramatic lines like, “If I still fight, it’s just that I’m afraid I’ll slide under that spell again,” is a lazy track that plods along with lethargic guitars and subdued vocals. Similarly sluggish guitar and drum work a pervade a good deal of the tracks from the middle of the album, and The Shins lose the captivating energy that drove earlier hits like “Phantom Limb” and “Australia” from “Wincing the Night Away.”
Thankfully, the band regains its jolly irreverence on upbeat tracks like “No Way Down” and “Simple Song.” “No Way Down” is a toe-tapping pop gem; with its catchy hooks and pared down melodies, the song’s tongue-in-cheek lyrics are also a welcome return to The Shins’ brand of happy sarcasm. And the band hits its high point on the album’s first single, “Simple Song.” Despite its misleading title, the track is replete with soaring harmonies and layered instrumentals that support Mercer’s powerful vocals. “Simple Song” is part poetic chronicle, part advice column; youthful reminiscences like “When I was just nine years old, I swear that I dreamt / Your face on a football field and a kiss that I kept / Under my vest” go arm in arm with displays of sympathy along the lines of “I know that things can get rough when you go it alone.”
“Port of Morrow’s” eponymous closer is representative of the album’s depth and curious dichotomies. The song combines warm, building harmonies with surprisingly emo lyrics: “How many times did you try to stop the bleeding with a knife?” The Shins have returned with a bittersweet complexity in their sound that mixes strains of harshness and sophistication into the band’s expected brand of cheeriness. “Is it all so very simple?” Mercer croons on “40 Mark Strasse.” The many complexities of “Port of Morrow” answer Mercer’s own question with a resounding “no.”