By Andrea WarnerIt's been five long years since the Shins' Wincing the Night Away proved just how far the Portland-based band had moved beyond indie obscurity. Buoyed by the 2004 film Garden State, as the band Natalie Portman promised would "change your life," the Shins lead singer-songwriter James Mercer was suddenly an icon to millions who loved his brand of poetic indie pop: dark lyrics steeped in metaphor contrasted with hooky choruses and breezy melodies.
Then suddenly Mercer made a radical shift, forming a new collaboration with hip-hop producer/songwriter Danger Mouse, aka Brian Burton. As Broken Bells, the duo released a hugely successful full-length and toured extensively, leaving Shins fans to wonder if their beloved band would be another casualty of the indie-goes-mainstream boom. Even Mercer himself wasn't sure.
"Yes, there was that thought [of quitting the Shins]," he admits in a recent interview with Exclaim!, weeks before the release of the band's fourth album, Port of Morrow. "But I love the thing I've created with the Shins. It would have been hard to give that up and just let it die. And I realized that wasn't necessary. There's no reason why I can't do it the way I want to do it."
Welcome to Shins 2.0. As several leaked tracks from Port of Morrow have proved, there are sonic surprises everywhere: fuzzed-out guitars, thumping bass lines, spacey beeps and blips, '80s keyboards and countless other flourishes. For the first time, Mercer's vocals aren't hidden under layers of instrumentation. And despite Mercer now being the Shins only remaining original member, this is the sound of confidence.
"This is the first Shins thing where I had a producer [Greg Kurstin] there who had a really strong aesthetic impact," Mercer says. "One of the things you have to do in order to collaborate with people is be comfortable with them knowing how good or bad you are, what your limits are. It was really a lack of confidence that caused me to do everything secretly in my room and record everything alone because I was afraid -- well, I was just nervous to go out there and work with 'real' musicians, you know?
"I've developed a bit of confidence, and man, working with Brian was huge in that respect. It gave me a lot of confidence to work with somebody so talented and yet he respected me. He knows very well and what my skills are; we've worked together for a long time and will continue to. It's a real boost."
Port of Morrow will be released on March 20 via Mercer's own imprint Aural Apothecary/Columbia Records. In support of the new album, the Shins have rolled out some U.S. tour dates, which you can view here.
UPDATE: You can watch the Shins' new video for "Simple Song" below.