With a storyline mirroring that of their unlikely labelmates in No Doubt (!), The Shins awoke from a lengthy hibernation in 2012 — led by a 40-something singer out to reclaim his roots after a much publicized side project. The resulting LP, Port of Morrow, is probably one of the year's best pop albums, albeit a far cry from a "return to form."
Gloss over Zach Braff and zap back a decade or so, and you'll find The Shins in their original incarnation: a spunky jangle-pop troupe from Nowheresville (Albuquerque) making records about listening to records. To those who initially sniffed out the band's 2001 debut Oh, Inverted World, the haunting pop ditties of singer James Mercer sounded like lost gems from indie's canonized Elephant 6 collective — the tribe of cult heroes that included Neutral Milk Hotel, Olivia Tremor Control and The Apples in Stereo.
Already 30 at the time of Inverted's release, Mercer seemed like a good bet to follow in his forefathers' commercially irrelevant footsteps, too. The Shins, for all their sugary hooks and clever wordplay, weren't even in step with the leading indie rock of their day — be it the garage rock revivalism of The White Stripes or the post-post-punk of The Strokes and Interpol.
By the time a doe-eyed Natalie Portman came along with her chunky headphones, however, all bets were off. "This song will change your life," she (in)famously tells a pouting Braff in 2004's Garden State — an endorsement that simultaneously placed The Shins on a pedestal and a chopping block. Gone, apparently, was Mercer's street cred. But as a fine parting gift came success, fame and — notably — continued critical adulation. While Portman had been hawking tracks off Oh, Inverted World, The Shins already had their excellent sophomore album in the can (2003's Chutes Too Narrow), and 2006's Wincing the Night Away indicated only a graceful adjustment to a larger audience.
Silence followed for a bit, until a 40-year-old Mercer — perhaps in midlife-crisis mode — re-emerged as the latest musical cohort of the prolific Danger Mouse in 2010, releasing the funky but not entirely satisfying Broken Bells album.
Fans wondered if The Shins' ship had sailed for good. But as it turned out — despite Mercer's penchant for swapping out the band's lineup — the band was alive and well. Sure, some tunes on Port of Morrow now recall the radio spit-shine of Tom Petty and Steve Miller more than the fuzziness of, say, The Feelies. But the single "It's Only Life" may be one of the best indie-pop epics since The Feelies' Glenn Mercer (no relation) penned a tune by the same name 25 years ago. ... Can't really say it'll change your life, though.