Adam: Listening to the new Shins record. They sound profoundly lost. Just me?
Interesting question, because of the word “lost.” Are they profoundly lost, like an artist finding great meaning in his personal state of drift? Or, as I get from the context, not able to achieve great art, to a profound degree? Are they lost themselves, lost in a sea of bad choices, or simply lost to Adam?
I would suggest, from a few quick listens to Port of Morrow, that The Shins are found, both to themselves, and in a bad way, to Adam. James Mercer, who IS The Shins is confidently exploring his distinct sound with precise attention to detail, quite obviously himself, if to an augmented degree of production which might drive away a devoted fan. Mercer’s got to be happy with this album. The synthesizers which hazed away in the sweet muddiness of Oh Inverted World, (an album which as a whole drifted like the rainbow in a spray off a sprinkler on a bright summer day; hey, The Shins lend themselves to such precious descriptions) now blurbscillate like dribbles of sauce on the plate at a high end restaurant. The guitars strum along beatifically, and then pierce through on perfect little solos. His singing has never sounded stronger, especially on the high notes. Familiar melodic twists join new poppy inventions, to good effect. Whether you like that effect is an opinion I’ll never be able to shape.
Is James Mercer finding his desired manifestation lost on our some-time fan? No, The Shins are found, but they’ve already been found, and what is found can not be found again. Mercer cleaned up his sound on Chutes Too Narrow, the one trick he could realistically pull without completely reinventing himself. Broken Bells might have been an attempt at reinvention, but this is definitely The Shins, and you can’t rediscover them. You can certainly say, hey, this is too clean, too produced, and while I’d argue that while every bleep might not be necessary, almost all the choices serve the songs, which (unlike on the nearly forgotten Wincing The Night Away) I’d have to say are rather strong. Note: The most in your face epicly souring songs are front loaded, and it gets gentler, possibly more appealing to suspicious Shins fans (one of Elvis’s greatest later songs) as the album progresses.
Strong enough to make us forget Chutes Too Narrow? Let’s not get crazy. Someone else could find this record, and easily make it their favorite, only to find Chutes too familiar, though I doubt it. That’s one hell of a record. A more likely scenario is for someone to love this record, be told by Shins fans that the real deal is Oh Inverted World and then be disappointed by the lack of sonic distinction. Sacrilege? Yes, but it happens all the time. Still, while there is a proper order to getting Shins records (first, second, fourth, and you’re done, so far), I have no idea yet whether these songs are going to stick with me as long as those others have, or whether we should be making mandatory Natalie Portman references here. All I know is that I’m singing some of the tunes already, and the title track is a spooky cool thing indeed.
Inevitably, getting more Shins dilutes the pool, however fresh the water. Questions arise: Is it too slick? Is Mercer too precious? Does any of it make sense, lyrically? Does the guy have to talk so much about how he’s cursed with an open heart? Could they show more darkness, edge, rock more? It’s the way with all artists. Few (The Beatles, The Pixies) have finished their runs with near perfect output. Let’s use Liz Phair as a model: she found the sound she wanted, and lost her fans (while actually charting) I’d say this album is more analogous to WhiteChocolateSpaceEgg than it is to Liz Phair. Don’t know who Liz Phair is? Maybe you should find her. Exile first, please!
Back to The Shins. I think this is a singular songwriter, one we’ll be talking about for a long time. Somehow Paul Simon comes to mind, another gentle soul who spun beautiful, convoluted necklaces of song. I’m glad he’s found what he’s found, and I found Port of Morrow quite charming.