He travels the fastest who travels alone. Presumably, you'll be wondering what on earth that proverb means – and more importantly, what it has to do with The Shins' latest album Port Of Morrow. The maxim, belonging to Rudyard Kipling, is a recurring sentiment from his 1888 poem The Winners and reiterates, at the end of each of its four stanzas, the importance and prosperity of going it alone.
In the tempestuous five years since The Shins last graced us with an album, the band's captain James Mercer appears to have had his nose buried into much of Kipling's work, seeking solace and wisdom from within the English poet's words.
Adopting the poem's fundamental theme, Mercer has since resurfaced the band without the companionship of long-term members Marty Crandall and Jesse Sandoval; a decision that, when initially announced in May 2009, left many Shins fans not only in disbelief but with a sinking feeling of uncertainty for the direction Mercer could, in isolation, still steer the project to produce something capable of eclipsing 2007's outstanding Wincing The Night Away.
Mercer continued to surprise; his collaboration with Gnarls Barkley's Danger Mouse gave birth to Broken Bells, and their critically-acclaimed self-titled 2010 album and EP Meyrin Fields, released a year later, were welcome beacons through the murky fog. Both acting as clear, early signals that Mercer still possessed an adept aptitude for song-writing, the releases also suggested the decision to throw his long-time keyboardist and drummer ove
rboard was not carelessly made or without justification. Instead of accusations of blind self-centredness, Shins fans now had to accept the lead singer's pleas that the bold move was born out of his own frustrations for the condition of his vessel and not purely driven by unrelenting egocentrism.
So we are finally presented with the long-awaited Port Of Morrow, The Shins' fourth album. Recorded in a 120 year-old converted barn, named after a port on the Columbia River on the West Coast of America and riddled with an array of instruments, Port Of Morrow is, fortunately, saturated in the familiar, peculiar essence of the Oregon outfit.
Opening track The Rifle's Spiral features a playful glockenspiel intro to accompany its unorthodox drum rhythm and Mercer's distinctive vocals. His unique rhetoric and idiosyncrasies are ever-present; amidst the catchy confused state of lament Bait And Switch, he whines, 'I'm just a simple man/ Cursed with an honest heart/ Why'd she go and tear it all apart?'. On The Rifle's Spiral, he assesses that 'So long before you were born/ You were to always be a dagger floating/ Straight to their heart'.
For those who are searching deeper for recognizable traits found in Shins' previous efforts, they will not be disappointed. Mercer, on Simple Song, utters the lines 'You sure must be strong/ And you feel like an ocean being warmed by the sun' much in the same manner as in the daydream delivery of Wincing The Night Away's Phantom Limb.
Mercer also references newfound difficulties faced on his isolated voyage. On Simple Song, he makes a passive point of knowing 'things can really get rough/ When you go it alone', citing his 'life in an upturned boat' is 'marooned on a cliff', but his gratification arises almost instantly with the lines, 'You brought me a great big flood/ And you gave me a lift'.
His optimism navigates the listener through to the buoyant It's Only Life, with its leisured pace and youthful, quirky, and almost psychedelic whirring synths nearly disguising his wise chorus of 'I have been down the very road you are walking now/ It doesn’t have to be so dark and lonesome/ Take a while till we figure this out/ Turn it back around'.
Despite having a heavily polished resonance rich in electronic sounds – thanks to producer Greg Kurstin) – Port Of Morrow still paddles in other influences, such as the Americana-folk roots of September and E-Street Band-esque number Fall of '82. That said, the diversity of the previous three albums isn't as prevalent. Instead, familiar, unhurried choruses help the album stay afloat until the self-titled closing track.
In a recent interview with NME, Mercer said that he had “final creative control”, saying “I need help – but the decisions are mine. If it sucks, it's my fault”. It's incredibly ironic that Kipling's poem utters the same thought with the lines, 'One may fall but he falls by himself/ Falls by himself with himself to blame'.
Also, Rudyard Kipling opens The Winners with, 'What the moral? Who rides may read/ When the night is thick and the tracks are blind/ A friend at a pinch is a friend, indeed/ But a fool to wait for the laggard behind'. In the tranquil yet brooding ripples of stand-out For A Fool, Mercer's melancholia is evident. But rather than displaying a sadness for leaving his band-mates adrift, his sorrow seems to be an admittance that he was in fact the fool who waited too long for 'the laggard behind' to try and catch up.
It's this avowal of his own failures that suggests The Shins is, and always has been, exclusively Mercer's, and that he will continue to embark on such a solitary voyage for a long time coming. When considering the quality of work being released through Broken Bells and the melodic, memorable nature of Port Of Morrow, it's becoming clear that the lead singer will, in fact, travel fastest when he travels alone.