Engaging enigmas left by the wayside as James Mercer plots a course to the arena
Braffrock. Rom-fill indie. Nu Zooey. Call it what you want, Portland’s [a]The Shins[/a] epitomised a distinct brand of collegiate, soundtrack-friendly cult-folk the second Natalie Portman played their ‘New Slang’ to Zach Braff in a hospital waiting room with the inference that liking it would definitely get him laid. As a direct result we now have Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear and a zillion other animal-based alt.folk bands. And a rather shame-faced Shins. After setting the standard and cementing their celluloid celebrity with 2007’s masterstroke third album ‘Wincing The Night Away’, mainman James Mercer has spent the past five years trying to convince us he’s more than the wafty folk-pop poster boy of her from The Phantom Menace. Hence his Danger Mouse electro side-project Broken Bells, and their album which sounded like a wafty folk-pop version of The Postal Service… and not unlike the sort of thing Natalie Portman might go around playing to cute hypochondriacs. Doh!
So it’s back to the day job. The Shins’ long-awaited fourth album kicks off with an electronica-flecked slice of indie-folk called ‘The Rifle’s Spiral’. It’s the sort of Shins/Broken Bells amalgamation Mercer probably thought would cause his haze-folk faithful to spontaneously combust from shock, but is actually the most predictable album opener since Jay-Z’s last ‘Intro’. From there a throb of church organ, a velveteen Wall Of Sound backbeat, some mildly maniacal guitar, a ‘Good Vibrations’ middle eight and a billowing Meat Loaf-gone-folk chug called ‘Simple Song’ resume business as usual – rousing, amorphous folk-pop songs that unravel their endearing sonic charms and foibles coyly, Portman-like, to those willing to love them, quirks and all.
There is much melancholic sweetness and light on show. ‘It’s Only Life’ is classic fairy-lit Mercer balladry about stapling a shredded relationship back together. The hazy last waltz of ‘For A Fool’ is the sort of inventive, emotive and adorable folk acher that changed our lives back in 2004. And there is otherworldly pastoral poetry: see the sedate hula of ‘September’, all pearls, curses, angel coats and girls “[i]born of the sea[/i]”.
Mercer’s trademark is a sense of polite challenge, that feeling of listening to a melodic Sudoku that made his songs all the more satisfying once ‘solved’. Yet it is hard to shake the feeling here that success has changed The Shins. As ‘Port Of Morrow’ develops it becomes ever more knowingly arena-folk, shedding The Shins’ more esoteric edge. Synthetic zumba beats bedeck ‘Bait And Switch’.
‘Fall Of ’82’ comes on like a cross between Thin Lizzy, The Beach Boys and Brendan Benson. And ‘No Way Down’ is all-out ’80s-teen-movie-pop, albeit with a guitar solo that sounds like whoever’s playing lead guitar – The Shins’ line-up being notoriously fluid – is tuning up mid-song. Crucially, the melodies here feel far less cryptic. Where ‘Wincing…’ felt like racing blindly through a labyrinth of hooks, ‘Port Of Morrow’ is meticulously signposted. But even if the Mensa-folk crew feel dumbed down on, there’s just enough Mercer magic on ‘…Morrow’ to light up your local drop-in centre.