One gets the feeling that The Shins were trying for a grand statement on their latest album, Port of Morrow. From the album’s arc — morose to uplifted and back again — to the coy title that seems right at home on a list of euphemisms with “the great beyond” and “the next adventure,” to the screw it, let’s just flat out say it lyrics on the titular finale like “Lady, look at your hands, get the angles right / Ace of spades / Port of Morrow / Life is death is life,” it’s clear the band is aiming to remark on death and afterlife. (If you need more evidence: The ace of spades is the Death card in tarot. Plus, that track ends with what sounds like 10 seconds of silence but is actually a very quiet whoosh when you turn up the volume.)
But although The Shins miss that mark on most of the album, they accidentally stumble onto much more interesting — relevant ground, ground that hasn’t been tread unceasingly since time immemorial. By accident, Port of Morrow succeeds as as an examination of the choices people make and the reasons they make them, even as it aspires to be something more grandiose.
Unfortunately, the incidental subject matter doesn’t fit the musical tone designed for the intended theme. That aforementioned cycle — downtrodden to upbeat and back down — is a motif that informs the order of the songs, the lyrical conceits (remember: “Life is death is life”) and even the musical construction of individual tracks.
The problem, though, doesn’t crop up until the relatively cheery middle section of the album. Toward the beginning, The Shins are right on point, blending smooth backing guitar with a little keyboard, some high-hat and snare and clear, calm vocals that are balanced down just enough to sound like they were recorded at the end of a long narrow studio. The end is strong as well, with several tracks — “Taken for a Fool” comes to mind — that feature just a strummed acoustic and a southern accent short of country ballads.
“Simple Song” is clearly meant to be Port of Morrow’s primary single, and it’s destined to succeed in that role. The Shins appear to have taken a leaf from Arcade Fire’s sheet music, crafting a song that’s triumphant and longing all at once. And it was probably a small step for the group to adapt the choral backing used in several of their previous albums to the swelling and arching melodies seemingly crafted specifically for a zoomed-out shot of a beaten-up station wagon on the final leg of its indie-movie journey.
Although that song will grab the ad royalties, the following track, “It’s Only Life,” is the star of the show. It’s in that song that the lyrics first begin to circumvent yet another examination of life and death in favor of something deeper. If the lyrics “You’ve been talking for hours / You said that time will wash every tower to the sea / And now you’ve got this worry in your heart / Well, I guess it’s only life,” don’t put a sad smile on the face of every listener, well, that’s only because tetanus-related lockjaw remains a serious medical condition.
There’s no experience more universal than staring up at the ceiling wondering what in the world is the right thing to do and how in the world to figure that out. It’s a sinking, longing feeling, and The Shins capture it perfectly through much of Port of Morrow, even if they don’t mean to.
4 stars out of 5