The Shins' Port of Morrow reveals personal truths
Even though there’s been some drama over the course of his career with the Shins, James Mercer doesn’t exactly seem to be living the kind of life that lands folk on Behind the Music.
Consider what he’s up to when he connects with the Georgia Straight, via cellphone, from his hometown of Portlandia. Sorry, drama junkies, but he’s not getting ready to report to rehab, recounting an on-street fistfight with former bandmates (who’ve famously left under sometimes-acrimonious circumstances), or recovering from a week of partying at the Chateau Marmont with his Broken Bells collaborator Danger Mouse.
“I’m in Portland, actually at what we call the Home Depot,” Mercer says, with a laugh. “I have to return a mop.”
And the excitement doesn’t stop there.
“The battery for my drill has also died,” he reports. “And of course you can no longer buy that particular battery, so I’m going to have to special order it for a million dollars or something. I’ve got some projects I’m working on, so I’m doing domestic stuff like that.”
And, if that doesn’t sound rock ’n’ roll enough for you, consider how Mercer started out his day.
“We took our daughter to kindergarten this morning,” he says. “She started yesterday, so today is her second day. She’s loving it already, which is great because I remember hating school immediately. She’s really enjoying herself. That’s a really great feeling—that she’s not having any of the social anxieties that I did.”
If one is to infer anything from all of this, it’s that Mercer is in a pretty great place these days, enjoying both fatherhood and such mundane tasks as standing in line at the local hardware store. (The latter trips, of course, come with owning an old heritage home, which the singer and his wife have purchased in the City of Roses.) When it’s suggested that this sense of peace seeped into the writing process for the Shins’ fourth and latest album, Port of Morrow, the singer doesn’t disagree.
Often cryptic on earlier releases, Mercer comes across as almost straight-ahead and wistful on many of the record’s tracks, most of which abandon the indie-rock template of past outings for a lush, electronic-heavy sound reflective of his work in Broken Bells. “Simple Song” has him celebrating the power of love, inspired by his relationship with his wife, Marisa Kula, a writer-turned-designer whom he met when she was assigned a story on the Shins for Spin. “Port of Morrow”, meanwhile, was inspired by a sign on an Oregon highway, Mercer noting that it’s one of the things that he always sees while returning to Portland after being on the road on tour.
Port of Morrow is a departure in more ways than its lyrical approach. Mercer has learned a few musical tricks over the past few years, thanks in part to the ongoing side project Broken Bells, which has him teamed up with super-producer Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse). Working here with L.A. producer Greg Kurstin (who’s also now a bandmate when the Shins play live), the singer displays an admirable refusal to replicate old glories. So instead of the languid lo-fi rock of the Natalie Portman fave “New Slang”, we get songs drenched in things like atmospheric strings (“For a Fool”) and ghostly keyboard washes (“Bait and Switch”). Mercer isn’t afraid to tap his inner heartland rocker (“No Way Down”), but he sounds more interested in embracing the cinematic electro-pop that made Broken Bells go-to music for urban-cool cocktail parties.
“It was a different process, and the first time I’d really worked with a producer right from the start,” he says of creating Port of Morrow. “And I think working with Brian, who is a really strong producer with a strong aesthetic, made me more open to trusting someone else. You get more comfortable with the idea of going ‘Hmm, I wouldn’t have thought of that for that song, but that’s rad. So going in with Greg made me realize ‘Hey, this is another one of those guys where you can go in, give them freedom, and they’ll come up with really cool stuff.’ ”
Ultimately, though, it’s Mercer’s willingness to reveal his private life that makes Port of Morrow a welcome career reinvention for the singer, who has officially embraced the fact that—while he might play with a band live—he, and he alone, is the Shins.
Featuring such lines as “I fell into dark times and you were there to help me through/You told me that a downturn would eventually improve,” “Fall of ’82” is an unabashed thank-you note. At the age of 11 Mercer, an army brat who spent his childhood overseas, found himself living back in North America, unhappy and miserable, which pretty much goes with the territory for any kid who realizes he isn’t destined to be captain of the football team or the future prom king. His 22-year-old sister, who had left home long ago, moved back in with the family in New Mexico, and then quickly proved to be a much-needed, stabilizing anchor.
That Mercer is able to be so open and celebratory on Port of Morrow is, he suggests, once again a sign that he couldn’t be in a better place today. Even if he ends up spending more time than he’d like at Home Depot.
“Often, in the past, when I’d sit down to write a song, the subject matter that would come into my head would be things that I was wrestling with,” Mercer says. “Relationships were, for a long time, changing around me. Everything was in a state of flux, whether it was dealing with women or with my bandmates. Now those things have sort of resolved themselves and that side of me is much more peaceful.
“I’m able to give much more energy to things like my sister helping me out, which I never really fully thanked her for,” he continues. “I don’t think she ever knew how important that was to me, because I never expressed it. Like many people in their 20 and 30s, I was spending a lot of time just figuring shit out. And maybe that’s what’s changed about me today. I can take a breath, look around me, and realize that there’s a lot to be grateful about.”
The Shins play the Orpheum on Tuesday (September 25).