Over three excellent albums released between 2001 and 2007, James Mercer — principal singer and songwriter in The Shins — walked a careful lyrical line between inscrutable detachment and the occasional song sprinkled with just enough clues for a solid interpretation.
So it is striking how honest and direct the seventh song on the band’s new album, “Port of Morrow,” seems to be.
“Port” is The Shins’ first release in five years, and the first since Mercer took an extended hiatus to pursue acting and a collaboration with super-producer Danger Mouse in a duo called Broken Bells. It is also the first Shins album since Mercer dismissed three decade-plus band mates who helped him make those first three albums in favor of studio players and hired touring guns.
It was “an aesthetic decision,” he told the music website Pitchfork two years ago, though the band’s aesthetic has not shifted that much — at the most, from scruffy, buoyant pop-rock to glossy, buoyant pop-rock.
It was also a clear line between The Shins as Mercer’s band, and Mercer as The Shins. The latter comes to Bend tonight (see “If you go”).
The rest of that Pitchfork interview doesn’t shed much light on the band’s turnover. And the song in question — “For a Fool” — isn’t exactly a confessional, but it does, perhaps, provide a peek into Mercer’s mindset following a few years of fame and professional turbulence.
In the first verse, he seems to look back on The Shins’ early days and sees not only the passage of time, but also a man held back by his own unwillingness to rock the boat and upset his friends:
“Young and bright but now just a dim light off in the distance / a falling stone following the path of least resistance.”
Then, it appears his time with Danger Mouse — the studio wizard behind hits by Gnarls Barkley, The Black Keys, Norah Jones and Gorillaz, among others — and access to better equipment and better players has quenched his own thirst for perfectionism in the studio, and he’s afraid of returning to sloppier days.
“If I still fight, it’s just that I’m afraid I’ll slide under that spell again.”
The second verse touches on the expectations that come with success, and the effects they can have on an artist trying to write flawless pop songs.
“So many times, caught up in my head at night with a leash and a label.”
Later, the song’s bridge hints at the haunting sound of an argument. Were inter-band squabbles behind Mercer’s decision to remake The Shins?
“The way we used to carry on is stuck in my head like a terrible song.”
A terrible song. Mercer’s worst nightmare.
Finally, the chorus:
“Taken for a fool / Yes I was and I was a fool / Following their rules / Guess I was a very honest tool.”
Reading between the lines is not my first choice here. I would’ve asked Mercer about the meaning behind “For a Fool,” but he never agreed to an interview. So maybe it’s about an extinct relationship, or something more esoteric.
But it sure doesn’t sound like it.