The Shins' 2004 microhit "New Slang" established one of the more pliant templates in 2000s pop – Feist, Bon Iver and Mumford & Sons all owe something to its frumpy intimacy and strummy, mumbled moodiness. But James Mercer has been stretching for something grander ever since; 2007's Wincing the Night Away was almost prog-rock in its micromanaged ambition. On the first Shins record in five years, he nails a balance of economy and sweep, matching the studio lushness he craves with the secondhand melodicism that made "New Slang" resonate beyond the vegan cookouts of his base in Portlandia.
Port of Morrow has more of a studio-sculpture auteurist vibe than ever. Mercer and producer Greg Kurstin send filaments of Sixties and Seventies radio gold and Nineties indie pop through a picturesque psychedelia – from the "Be My Baby" cathedral boom of "Simple Song" (with Janet Weiss mutilating the drums) to "For a Fool," soul-pop balladry as a mossy Upper Northwest guitar nod. Mercer has been given to lyrical opacity, but these songs trigger clear sentiments. There's a soft-rock e-mail to his cool sister ("Fall of '82"), a moonlit slow dance for his patient wife ("September") and a bright anti-one-percent screed with slashing Johnny Marr guitar ("No Way Down"). The Hall and Oates fantasia "40 Mark Strasse" is especially vivid; Mercer remembers what it feels like to be a shy teenage boy with a crush on the terrifyingly hip girl down the block. "Every single story is a story about love," he croons. He sure retells it sweetly.
Listen to "Simple Song":
• The Shins Reveal Track Listing for 'Port of Morrow'