It was the end of The Shins as we knew them — or at least that’s how it seemed in 2009. After a whirlwind decade which the band began as eccentric Albuquerque upstarts and ended — thanks to a an infamous namedrop from Natalie Portman in Garden State and the power-pop chops displayed on the terrific Chutes Too Narrow — the indie equivalent of a household name. But after touring for their last studio album, Wincing the Night Away, frontman James Mercer and the rest of the band parted ways. With his penchant for creeping melodies and warped wordplay, Mercer’s proven himself to be one of indie rock’s most distinctive and consistent songwriters. But news that he was reviving The Shins name with an entirely new backing band for their new record Port of Morrow couldn’t help but cause some fans to worry — Chinese Democracy, anyone?
Lucky for us, Port of Morrow clears those worries right up: It’s undoubtedly some of the strongest and most confident material Mercer’s ever released. Pensive, acoustic-driven numbers like “September” and “It’s Only Life” mingle alongside the bright, explosive power-pop of “No Way Down” and “Simple Song,” while Mercer’s knotty melodies have enough complexity to demand repeated (sometimes even obsessive) listens. As usual, Mercer’s language is as vivid and off-kilter as the soundscapes that accompany it (the lead-off single has some searing imagery: “When I was just nine years old, I swear that I dreamt/ Your face on a football field.”) There’s hardly a dull moment, but it’s that track, “Simple Song” that’s an undisputed greatest hit from first listen. Over its heart-tugging, minor-key chorus, Mercer unleashes that characteristic yelp: “I know that things can really get rough/ When you go it alone.” Good thing he didn’t have to: Port of Morrow shows that Mercer’s assembled the perfect team to breathe new life into his inverted world.