Music at Mars Hill is a weekly column by Luke Larsen that seeks to find God amidst the newest trends in both mainstream music and independent music.
Most thought this album would never come out. It’s been five years since Wincing the Night Away and frontman James Mercer had repeatedly reinforced those doubts in interviews. However, now we’ve got Port of Morrow, the band’s fourth studio album. Musically, it sounds very much like The Shins. Simple songs, acoustic guitars, and Mercer’s unique songwriting craft are all present. However, having listened to the album quite a bit, I can’t help but notice a pretty substantial change of tone in Mercer’s writing.
Watching an artist evolve and change over the years is one of the most interesting things we get to do as music lovers. Songwriters like Mercer write with their emotions on their sleeves — so becoming familiar with their music is often like getting a peek inside their very souls. Now, 10 years since The Shins released its first work, Mercer is 41 years old, a husband, and father of two girls. In other words, he’s grown up quite a bit since then. This maturing has had an interesting effect on his writing in a way that surprised me.
Gone are the days when Mercer was a cynical thirty-something who thought he had all the answers to life. He had harsh words and strong emotions for just about everyone and everything back then. On Chutes Too Narrow, he took on religion and societal institutions with quick jabs and a sharp tongue. On Wincing the Night Away, he struggled with insomnia and contemplated it the human condition. But now, Mercer seems to be looking back at his life with nostalgia and even a little grace.
In the song “Fall of ’82,” he looks back at an old friendship with new eyes and a thankful heart, saying: “See, you were my life line when the world was exploding, yeah/You moved back in with us in the fall of ’82/I fell into dark times and you were there to help me through/You told me that a downturn would eventually improve/And you were right, so I’m thanking you.” In “40 Mark Stresse,” easily one of my favorites off the album, Mercer recalls the broken childhood of a past lover and looks back at their meeting with fondness and retrospective meaning.
It’s also in this song that he utters perhaps the most meaningful line he has ever written, commenting on the fact that love is the center issue of all of our lives: “Cause every single story is a story about love/Both the overflowing cup and the painful lack thereof.” Few songwriters can pen lines like these with any sincerity these days, but James Mercer has proved to be one of those rare writers with a heart as big as his intellect. After watching so many musicians find fortune and fame and then slowly fade into desperate egocentric narcissism, it’s so refreshing to see an artist go through just the opposite transformation.
At 23 years old, I am no stranger to a youthful sense of cynicism. I have encouraged my doubts and negative perceptions about life and let them flourish. If there’s anything I’ve been learning in the past couple of years, it’s that there will always be plenty of reasons to be cynical in the world. However, negativity and cynicism is a choice that we make ourselves — not something that happens to us. Abundant life, endless possibility, and contagious hope are hidden around every corner in life — sometimes it just takes some growing up to see it plain view.