There’s a kind of music criticism that involves reviewing an album (or a something) on the basis of everything that’s come before it in the career of those who made the album. I try not to go down this path, seeing music as part of a greater, in-progress, whole. This way of doing things is not about the music being listened to, the noise actually oscillating the air, the thing making waves but rather it’s about whether this piece of product is worth twenty bucks compared to the last time you spent twenty bucks, whether this consumer choice will be as rewarding as the last consumer choice. It’s a touch more sophisticated than the “I like their old stuff better than their new stuff” but not much.
Narratives drive toward, and then from, an emphatic now. A now that might be explained and rationalised as being a mere part, a particular time that makes sense in relation to the before and after. A now that serves only as an example in comparison to other iterations of the moment. I’m tempted by this kind of writing quite often. Careers are so mesmerically up and down that what could be more fun than a charting of all the steps and missteps toward being complete? The narrative is so cool, so vivacious and effortlessly hopeful that it beckons even the most restrained of writers into teleological sorties.
Presence, absence, now, later, yesterday: all are elegant tools for the task at hand deployed to suit, deployed as tools for selling things, and music in particular. The career arc becomes a business arc of hits and misses, closely correlated to sales and slumps. Two axis plotting rise, decline and fall. This simple superimposition becomes like Pilgrim’s Progress: a narrative in which an artist is understood to be moving toward, or failing to move toward, whatever generic divinity can be attributed to their work. In this guise the music critic becomes a kind of shaman who finds the form of words to carry the music, and the listener, to heaven.
This is rubbish.
So, The Shins’ Port of Morrow. During the weeks I’ve spent to listening to Port of Morrow I’ve been endlessly thinking about how much I adored Oh, Inverted World; how much I absolutely loved Chutes Too Narrow; that I played the Broken Bells over and over again; and that I even gave Sparklehorse a dozen listens before I decided it wasn’t for me. I think James Mercer is fantastic, I want to write the guy fan mail and invite him around for a barbeque. I could tell a wonderful story about all of this and describe with loving detail how close The Shins are to divinity, making it clear that The Shins are on the shining road and that through sheer devotion I too can pass through the gates of heaven. But I won’t.
The Shins’ Port of Morrow? I didn’t like it.