James Mercer took the Shins on a big left turn with Wincing the Night Away, a record more experimental than indie-pop. And though it's been five years since that album, lo and behold, Mercer has followed the path of that wide turn ever since.
That difficult third album has stood as a question mark since 2007, but Port of Morrow brings the answer as clear as day, fully revealing Mercer's vision for the Shins. If anything, the band's first two albums sound spare and demo-like in comparison to Port of Morrow, a lushly produced gem that fleshes out the jangly guitars with so many new layers.
The Shins earned their place on top of the indie-rock heap, and it's a thrill to hear that Mercer hasn't been fiddling away on some Chinese Democracy-style disaster for the last five years. I'll admit fears that Mercer had a descent-into-madness thing going on, stuck with some ever-expanding magnum opus he could never fully get his head around. On the contrary, Port of Morrow is sharp and fresh—well worth the wait.
Highlights are plenty—the surging of synth of lead single "Simple Song," the close-to-the-heart beauty of "It's Only Life," the swaying lap-steel guitar of "For a Fool"—and there's nothing close to a bad apple.
Mercer's Shins return is highly polished and fussed about (though the Shins were never known for lo-fi rawness), probably enough to make it a divisive record. But if you're seeking bliss in Port of Morrow, the rewards flow profusely.