The Shins’ Port of Morrow and Excellence Executed Well: A Personal Essay

I waited until two days after Port of Morrow was released to buy it. For those that know my level of Shins adoration, the wait was unusual. Maybe it was an affront to my fandom, but I wasn’t all that impressed with the Shins pre-album performances. SNL, Letterman, youtube clips, it was all a mass of garbled wonder and it left me bewildered. How can I hold any disdain for a band that put out three outstanding albums? Was it too much to ask that a too-long absence produce a fourth masterwork? Hold on, I’ll explain why it was and turned out not to be.

So often, bands spiral downward. I think Jawbreaker’s Dear You (the fourth studio album from my favorite band) is a standout example. Critically destroyed, childishly flamboyant, over-recorded, Dear You is a trainwreck at times, but that’s why I love it. I’m not entirely sure why it was panned so vehemently– perhaps the saturation of emotional rock music led folks astray on the purpose of the album. Perhaps their popularity amongst adoring fans made dismissal an obvious choice. Jawbreaker was the exact crossroads: too small to fail and too popular to quit. Dear You turned into a labor of love, but wasn’t worth the problems it caused. Often, a band’s shelf-life is shorter than the albums they continue to create. That’s all I could think about as the release date neared: The Shins’ popularity and relative obscurity were demonizing what should have been an exciting day.

I was too young to really know why Jawbreaker fell apart or why people didn’t like Dear You. I was old enough to hear people complain about Wincing the Night Away not being as good as the Shins’ previous efforts. It was as if the album were an affront to those that worshipped Chutes Too Narrow and an excuse to dismiss The Shins for those who didn’t love them anyway. I figured it was their last release. Once James Mercer started writing with Danger Mouse, his path diverged from mine and I was content with the three albums he gave the Shins’ moniker. Hell, I even loved Wincing, unlike most folks I knew. There was nothing missing. The Shins were infallible and they’d chosen to stay that way. Then, I saw pitchfork articles touting terribly recorded live material. Then iTunes released “Simple Song.” Then the release date. Then my trepidation and waiting.

Had The Shins ruined my attraction to them? After 7 years, the idea of a new Shins record was more appealing than actually knowing one was coming. I held off on listening to bad recordings, opting instead for the “Simple Song,” a Cars-esque theatrical love song. I waited for SNL’s sneak peek too, hoping for a decent sound, but I wasn’t impressed. The company I was in were not Shins fans– not even close– so maybe they had affected how I heard the performance.

See, that’s where I failed: I needed to cull my youthful exuberance. When Dear You came out, I was just excited to hear from Jawbreaker again. I wasn’t worried about their stranding in the music world or what I would think if the record wasn’t great. After all the hand-wringing, I read what my friend wrote on facebook (thanks, Scott H.) and I got excited again. To paraphrase: “I’m a sucker for the Shins.” Me too, I forgot. So why am I scared? Two days after the release of what should have been my most anticipated album in a decade, I came home from work, copped Port of Morrow, and got comfy. My fears washed away pretty quickly– by the time Mercer refrains, “You were always to be a dagger floating straight to their heart,” I was satiated. Port of Morrow is great and I’ve listened to it damn near exclusively since I bought it. Fears allayed, I focused on why I would be so fretful, fell into a rabbit-hole of Chutes proportions and have reminded everyone I know of how good this band was/is.

The difference in my youthful ignorance and my world-wearied exterior isn’t personified often: I’ve softened on so many issues and I’m no elitist. Port of Morrow is not an album with grandiose pertinence like their past work. In fact, it’s a bit more direct and preachy rather than story-telling or dynamic. “September” is a grand exception. “40 Mark Strasse,” “Simple Song,” “It’s Only Life,” and “Fall of ’82″ are all direct messages and unlike anything Mercer has ever done. All the songs masterpieces, collectively, Port of Morrow straddles the line between cheesiness and exaltation. Either way, it’s pop-perfection. He croons over certain songs, whispers and crawls over others. Even the iTunes b-side “Pariah King” serves as an example of how good Mercer is. Filler keyboard rambles, strangely entrancing vocal-highs and philosophical understandings of life amongst the bottom-feeders underline the one thing I wasn’t expecting: I love this band despite their absences and faults. I love them despite my own.

I was planning on just writing “It’s excellent,” and leaving the review at that. And it would’ve done this album some justice. Port of Morrow deserves the boring backstory, though. The Shins deserve my collective sighs and overwrought personality. They deserve everything I’ve got, because they’ve been consistently astounding for this long. Wrapping my head around Mercer’s genre-bending boldness is never old, despite how long I wait. I’m ready to believe again, The Shins. You’ve earned more than what I offered this record, but it won’t happen again, I promise. With renewed vigor, I’m telling everyone the truth. Port of Morrow is more than a comeback record, it’s more than a return to greatness, it’s more than perfection.

It’s excellent.

Lonely Weekend Singles Club #1: Freddie Gibbs & Madlib/ The Shins

Ed. Note: It’s new idea time. Every so often, Joe and I will be talking about singles we like in anticipation of new reviews. Get some.

Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Thuggin’

Freddie Gibbs and Madlib collaborating is a dream collaboration and if 10 listens is all I need to review something, I can likely review this three times already. Gibbs goes in hard, Madlib’s production is, as usual, astounding and the beginning sample rules. Even more maddening is that the B-side, “Deep,” could be even better. When this album comes out, I might never be heard from again. I plan on bumping this and driving around for days until I run out of money/gas and have to sell drugs to get back on my feet. I mean, why not? I could be thuggin’, right? Right? In any event, is the whole album as tight as the Thuggin’ EP? If so, I’m gonna be hard-pressed to find a better album this year.

The Shins – Simple Song

Time for a totally different direction. I’m an unabashed Shins fan and I’m all kinds of pumped about Port of Morrow. That said, this song is super-produced, the lyrics lack their normal storytelling fervor and, overall, I’m not sure if I love it. I know I like it, but The Shins have never really had a single I didn’t absolutely love. Maybe I can force myself to love it. Just maybe, the rest of the album will crush this synth-driven hook-jam. Either way, “Simple Song” is pretty good, at the very least, and I am shaking in anticipation for a new Shins record. Believe that.