There’s a line in the chorus of the song “For a Fool” — a track off The Shins’ latest album, “Port of Morrow” — that goes, rather simply, “Taken for a fool/yes I was, because I was a fool.” It’s the embodiment of this new album, their first since 2007’s “Wincing the Night Away.” It’s an accessible line; it’s frank, to the point and yet it’s still emotionally moving and poetic in its simplicity.
This is how the entire album functions. Lyrically and musically it’s streamlined, with fewer sound effects and sonic oddities than The Shins usually go for as well as fewer lyrical abstractions, like the “eloquent young pilgrims” passing from their 2003 album “Chutes Too Narrow.”
Instead, we find music that’s slower, conventional and easily digestible. It’s the furthest the band has ever traveled down the road of “pop” music. Yet it also allows for James Mercer, the band’s vocalist, main instrumentalist and songwriter (and the only original member now left), to bare his soul and craft emotions more deeply than ever before. For example, on “It’s Only Life,” Mercer sings, “I’ve been down the very road you’re walking now/it doesn’t have to be so dark and lonesome/It takes a while but we can figure this thing out and turn it back around.”
There is no longer the same inaccessible wall of highly intellectual and literary lyrics that Mercer has leaned on from time to time before. It’s not altogether gone, but he lowers his guard and allows every listener into his world as he contemplates love, growing older and settling down.
“Simple Song,” the lead single off the album, takes him into the world of young romance: “When I was just 9 years old/I swear that I dreamt your face on a football field/and a kiss that I kept, under my vest.” And as the lyrics burst forth, the music briefly turns into a marching 70-esque anthem, complete with fluctuating synth, as if it could have come off The Who’s 1971 opus “Who’s Next.”
Musically, the album expresses incredible range, from those ’70s-inspired smaller moments of “Simple Song” to the clear 1980s pop song inspirations of “Fall of ‘82” and the falsetto-fueled jazzy pop on the title song “Port of Morrow.” Yet through it all, there is always something underlying that unifies it all, that is inherently “Shins-y.”
The album truly feels like their most mature work yet. James Mercer has crafted a brand new Shins album after a five-year hiatus, and it feels like the band we’ve always loved. Yet now Mercer has more on his mind. And the music and lyrics reflect it. What may appear to be a more accessible, pop-centric album serves as a vehicle for Mercer to take us through his thoughts and contemplations on love and life, while using more reserved music as a backdrop, allowing us to hear it that much more clearly.
Reserved as it may be, though, it’s still a Shins album, and so the catchiness factor is in full effect. After all, I’ve had these songs stuck in my head since the minute I hit “play.”