Meet the new Shins. Same as the old Shins? Kinda sorta. Version 2.0 of the Albuquerque-via-Portland band (made up of musicians from various Pacific Northwest bands along with founding singer-songwriter James Mercer) make their recorded debut on the heels of their dear leader's stint as one-half of Broken Bells. Port of Morrow, the band's fourth album — their first since 2007 — is marked by typical Broken Bells elements: lush neo-pop arrangements, '60s and '70s pop allusions, and increased willingness to take songs out on a limb. This new widescreen canvas is welcome, and plots Mercer's current tack halfway between robust power-pop and dreamy pop-psych. It's arguably Mercer's and the Shins' most satisfying achievement. That's not a slight toward the band's previous incarnation(s), just a fact.
Changes are apparent in the first 30 seconds of the opening track, "The Rifle's Spiral," with its icy synths, chugging spy-movie guitar, and unfailing propulsion. "Bait and Switch" and "No Way Down" ratchet up the record's infectious energy, squeezing Mercer's idiosyncratic style into a catchy, sleek frame. The band even shoot for the lighter-waving rafters in mid-tempo tracks like "It's Only Life" and "40 Mark Strasse." Lyrically, Mercer remains the realist, the pragmatist, the defeatist. "Make me a drink strong enough to wash away the dishwater world they said was lemonade," he sings in "No Way Down," while the band bounce blissfully along, as if they didn't get the dishwater memo. It's melancholia, blunted. And as much as you can argue that the Shins have become a vehicle for Mercer, they sound, now more than ever, like a band with tricks up their sleeves. "A creature of habit has no real protection," he sings on "Bait and Switch," and the lesson, if you can call it that, seems to be this: take comfort in that which keeps things interesting.