In the five years since the Shins released “Wincing the Night Away,” frontman James Mercer has ventured away with Broken Bells, his elegant space-warped project with producer Danger Mouse. On the new “Port of Morrow,” with multi-instrumentalist and co-producer Greg Kurstin, Mercer lets in more electronica than ever — an invigorating shift. But the changes show that the Shins, once the poster act of sing-along-and-cry indie rock, is an identity that Mercer, the only original member left, may have outgrown.
At times, “Port of Morrow” greatly benefits from the filmy pop-electronica details that Kurstin drapes over the productions, much like he has for Beck, Lily Allen and his own band, the Bird and the Bee. “Bait and Switch” starts with smeary, disembodied effects and opens up to bubbling keys and a revved-up two-step that propels Mercer’s distinctive note-bending vocals. On a few other songs, the weak melodies can’t bear out the flourishes and they meander exhaustively.
For the closing title track, Mercer tries a falsetto that sounds like Thom Yorke crooning in drowsy moonlight. It’s intriguing but the song never seems to come totally to form. Contrasted with the exhilarating force of “Simple Song,” you wonder what the album could’ve been if every melody hit its sticking point but still experimented outside the traditional guitar anthem. “Port of Morrow” feels like an announcement — exciting but unresolved — of what’s still yet to come.
— Margaret Wappler
“Port of Morrow”
Two and a half stars (out of four)