The Shins released their fourth full-length album this spring. Officially. Kind of. Because while Port of Morrow says “The Shins” in big letters right on the cover, and if you Google “Shins new album,” you get results that take you to this latest LP, these are The Shins in name only.
When The Shins released their debut, Oh, Inverted World, the band was comprised of James Mercer, Jesse Sandoval, Martin Crandall, and Neal Langford. For their breakthrough follow-up, Chutes Too Narrow, Dave Hernandez replaced Langford. The current Shins are: Mercer, Yuuki Matthews, Jessica Dobson, Joe Plummer, and Richard Swift. Mercer recorded Port of Morrow essentially as a solo album.
Yet it’s still a Shins album.
Given that he has an entirely new group of backing musicians, and that he recorded the album on his own (with help from producers, but he’s the sole creative voice), why wouldn’t Mercer just call Port of Morrow what it is: a James Mercer joint? Because of money, obviously.
A Shins album is going to sell significantly better than a James Mercer album. Indeed, Port of Morrow debuted at #4 on Billboard’s album chart, for whatever that’s worth anymore. But why would that be the case? Other than those people who recognize the name of the band but not the individual, why do people care whether it’s called a Shins record or a James Mercer record — assuming the music contained therein is the same in either case. And…does Mercer have a right to continue calling himself the Shins?
Legally, I’m sure he does. If Axl Rose can continue calling whatever unwieldy force he’s now fronting “Guns N’ Roses”, then I suppose we’re in the Wild West of the legal implications behind bands’ monikers.
But IS James Mercer the Shins? Are they the same entity? Or did the identities of those other musicians matter? While I can’t profess to have any intimate knowledge of the band’s songwriting or recording process, I think it’s safe to assume that Mercer has always been the dominant creative force.
Other artists in Mercer’s position have often elected to go by their own name when finally branching out from the musicians with whom they’ve shared a name. Jack White — arguably even more solely responsible for his band’s output than Mercer — did not call himself The White Stripes when Meg left and he started performing with a bunch of same-gendered weirdos.
Natalie Merchant went by her own name when she fled 10,000 Maniacs. David Byrne retired the Talking Heads when he departed.
No, Mercer calling himself The Shins puts him in sad company: with the aforementioned Axl Rose, and almost (but not quite) on par with Doug Yule having the gall to release a “Velvet Underground” album without Lou Reed or any other original members. A more generous analogue might be Spoon, who have long had a rotating case of members aside from frontman/visionary Britt Daniel; however, Jim Eno co-founded Spoon as has been a part of that collective ever since.
So Mercer seems like a bit of a mercenary, and perhaps a bit dishonest, releasing the new album under The Shins’ brand. But why should that matter to the music-consuming public? Why do we give a damn what the names are of the people recording the sounds that are going in our ears?
When Bill Berry left R.E.M., fans immediately assumed the music would suffer (which it did, but that’s another ball of yarn). But he was “only” a drummer, and most casual rock fans couldn’t pick out any individual drummer while blindfolded. Even the most devoted of Shins fans probably can’t discern between a Dave Hernandez bass riff and an Eric D. Johnson bass riff. Certainly, there are signature instrumentalists who are instantly recognizable based on sound alone (e.g. Flea, The Edge), but most backing musicians are tough to distinguish.
Which means that we care who’s on the records because of what the bands mean to us rather than what the songs actually sound like. We idealize bands as collectives of individuals, and we want to believe that the chemistry between humans is more important to musical output than talent and other more tangible qualities. Because music is so important in our lives, we want the bands we love to hold it (and themselves) as sacred as we do. When bandleaders act like their keyboardists, bassists, and drummers are interchangeable parts, it implies they value their band less than fans do — if not the music itself.
It’s an odd piece of human psychology — and I’m just as prone to its effects as anybody. When I listen to Port of Morrow, I find it impossible to forget that this is a Shins album but not really. The production sounds too clean and computerized, and while the album has some well-written songs, I find myself missing the “classic Shins” sound. Is that a ridiculous reaction to having too much information about how the record was made? Or does it really sound too sterile? I don’t know — while most reviewers seem to agree with my take, I also don’t know if they’re suffering from the same biases I am.
The one thing I do know: it would have been a lot cleaner and simpler if James Mercer had just called this a solo album.