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Album: The Shins, Port of Morrow (Columbia)


The Shins' first album for Columbia, Port of Morrow is not quite as immediately likeable as its predecessor, 2007's Wincing the Night Away – but then, not being immediately likeable is one of the things that sets Shins albums apart from the routine run of rock'n'roll.

James Mercer, the band's songwriter is rather like the anti-Noel Gallagher, perversely discarding melodies that might seem too obvious in favour of serpentine ones that take the longer, more picturesque route into one's heart. But once there, they're that much harder to dislodge, occupying as they do a position entirely their own, uncrowded by anything vaguely similar.

"The Rifle's Spiral" opens proceedings with a typically oblique melody, harnessed to a typically enigmatic lyric that bucks against attempts to wrestle it to clarity. "Primitive mirror on the wall, to fortify your grim resolve," sings Mercer at one point, "And made the glitz of a shopping mall another grain of indigent salt to the sea."

It could be a cut-up, for all the immediate sense it makes. But as the album progresses, the accumulation of similar apparent non-sequiturs sketches a vague outline of a theme, something to do with disillusion, with being let down, or afflicted with a tendency to read things that way. It's an outsider complex that suits Mercer's style perfectly.

As he notes in "It's Only Life", "you wanna hop along with the giddy throng through life – but how'd you learn to steer when you're grinding all your gears?" That sense of operating at a different speed to those around you, with different goals and hopes, pervades Port of Morrow.

And not just lyrically, either. Even the single "Simple Song" begs its own question by being far from simple, with woozy keyboards gliding over pert guitar chords, and Mercer's vocal slipping into falsetto just when you least expect it.

Yet by the second listen, it's somehow found its place in one's affections, despite its lack of obvious hooks. The bogus simplicity recurs in "Bait and Switch", where he protests he's "just a simple man, cursed with an honest heart" – though the song's scudding pop style, with a little Latin twitch to the groove, displays an elegant complexity that's the 21st-century equivalent of Steely Dan, without sounding like them.

Elsewhere, mellotronic strings and a twangy guitar motif lend wistful melancholy to "For a Fool", while a flugelhorn solo underlines the poignant reminiscence of "Fall of '82". Everywhere you look there are striking images vying for your attention, my favourite being the observation, "You feel like an ocean being warmed by the sun", a line replete with its own oceans of meaning.

By the Fleetwood Mac-style soft-rock harmonies of the penultimate track, "40 Mark Strasse", the various strands are being more sturdily braided together, with further intimations of disillusion and further reflections about "Is it all so very simple, and horribly complex?" Maybe, like life itself, it's not a case of either/or, but both at once.

DOWNLOAD THIS Simple Song; Bait and Switch; 40 Mark Strasse; For a Fool