James Mercer has returned to Earth. Port of Morrow, the Shins’ fourth studio album in 11 years, is a triumphant return from a project that once risked being reduced to an indie-went-mainstream tagline. It’s the perfect distillation of the Shins’ back catalog — the jangly, wistful airs of Oh, Inverted World, Chutes Too Narrow‘s genre-resistant playfulness, Wincing the Night Away‘s expansively detailed production. But in other ways, its colorful, detail-oriented approach sets it apart from anything Mercer’s done before.
Mercer invited a cast of characters both new (Janet Weiss, production wiz Greg Kurstin, singer/songwriter Nik Freitas) and old (Modest Mouse’s Joe Plummer, Fruit Bats’ Eric D. Johnson, on-and-off supporting players Marty Crandall and Dave Hernandez) to realize his ornate pop-rock creations. All contributions are felt — you don’t need liner notes to tell how many people worked on this thing — but none more so than Kurstin’s. His multi-instrumental arrangements and behind-the-boards know-how are what make Port of Morrow one of 2012’s best-sounding records thus far. Every element here is tricked out for maximum emotional effect — experience total power-pop pleasure overload from “Simple Song”‘s acrobatic pile of guitars, get the chills from the drifting sea breeze-echo of “September”, and wrap yourself in “For a Fool”‘s string-laden lushness. Needless to say, these songs would sound great on Natalie Portman’s humongous headphones. — Pitchfork