Submission No. 8

The Shins / Port of Morrow

Music instead of a still image, for this riff. (The image above, being cover art, is subordinate to the music.)

What is the difference? Certainly, on the level of our brains, it is a matter of which cluster of neurons processes which electrical current delivered from which relevant organ. But I want to ask, what is the difference, on the level of our subjective experience, between music and an image?

For one, music occurs over time. In fact it requires change over time, modulations of frequency, pitch, and so on. We need to follow it. Whereas an image is experienced all at once. We can move our eyes over an image, and in this sense follow it, but we nevertheless know that the impact of the image can be felt in its entirety. We stand back. We look. If particularly struck, we may stay on it for some time, with a kind of soft focus in our eyes.

But music, we follow through time.

This distinction makes us, I want to suggest, more vulnerable when we listen to music. We are like the child led by the hand through a forest, along a bluff, above the pounding surf, into a house, across a field.

Come, let’s take hands and enter the forest of the Shins’ latest, Port of Morrow, together. I feel like getting out for a walk. Who’s guiding us? A singer-songwriter, the Shins’ frontman, named James Mercer. He seems like a safe and friendly enough guy…


We hear feedback, like an old radio dial is being tuned. Then — BLAM — bass comes in, guitar, drums. Confidence. A voice. Warning us. Resigned to some kind of defeat. “So long… to this wretched form…” “You were always / to be a dagger /  floating / straight to their heart.”

Is this a threat? If so, are we the threat? Is he talking to us — and if so, are we the “you” or the “their”? There is myth-making going on here, a sense of the urgency of the moment, an implication of future heroic acts. But required of whom? “You sublimate yourself…” Bass solo. Radio feedback again. More despair: “Another grain of indigent sorrow…”

Hold my hand tighter, reader. This is not going to be an easy stroll. We are heading somewhere. We better prepare ourselves.


More despair. More regret (of course any song with this title has to be about regret). Fear too. But then: “… you must be strong, and you feel like an ocean being warmed by the sun…” There! A sense of hope. Also, now it is becoming clear, we are hearing the oddly syncopated bass of the Beach Boy’s Pet Sounds. Couple that with the mention of the ocean. Ah, now it is clear… This is referential; reverential. And here comes the chorus, high, strained, explosive:

“I know that things can really get tough, when you go it alone…”

The singing, so infused with emotion — again this could easily be Brian Wilson. It makes the same appeal to us: stay true, stay open, be emotional, be sincere, in the face of these challenges. We arrive at a musical interlude… Are you hearing this? — it’s a straight-up, fucking COPY of the Beach Boys, with the four-note motif on the bass (God Only Knows). Damn, I called it. There’s also, alongside this, that piano part, reminiscent of Dylan (there’s even a vague organ wash underneath). But now a guitar solo kicks in that is vintage grunge, evoking Dinosaur Jr., Pixies, Nirvana. And all of this, all of this play, this reference, this reverence, comes down to the last line:

Love’s such a delicate thing that we do… With nothing to prove… Which I never knew…” (with a 70’s lilt to Mercer’s voice)

The thing that is delicate and has nothing to prove. The only thing unmotivated. That grows despite everything. Look closely at the trees in the dark night. There are flowers growing out of their bark. Small, white, wild flowers. I feel a hint of morning in the air.

Let’s keep walking.


Acoustic guitar. Drums. A lolling melody. Up down up down. Condemnation. Judgment. He tells someone — is it us? — that we want to “hop along, with the giddy throng, through life,” but we are grinding all our “gears.” And we fear that “time will wash every tower to the sea .” Then he skips from Yeats… to Lewis Carroll:

“We all spend a little while going down the Rabbit Hole.” 

Are we the ones he is speaking to? Are we down the Rabbit Hole?

The singer says he has been there before. It takes a while, he says, but we can turn this thing around.

But I didn’t ask for your help! I want to say.

“You used to be such a lion,” he says.

Screw off, I say. I’m not asking you to do anything.

The singer says he doesn’t shut open doors. The future calls to him and he answers. He thinks it breaks my heart. But we are saying: “NO. Your judgment is presented as caring, but it’s a kind of cruelty.”

I want to let go of the guiding hand. Just hold on to you.

Let’s do it, shall we? Now!

Okay. The song ended. Silence. You and me now. Where are we?


We are in a kind of Beatlesesque psychedelic soundscape. Now it turns jaunty. The singer says he finally had all his “ducks in a row.” But someone — a lover — got in. That kind of girl, he sings, she “ain’t nobody’s daughter.” Love has called us. Step, step, step through the mud. Follow the dim gray light. We are leaving the trees. We are entering a kind of bog. Bait and Switch. Bait and Switch. Why are we always lost? Why is the human experience so confusing, so changeable? Because we experience it in time. Because time rewrites what was true in the past; it rewrites it in our fallible memory. Proust says all memories are really a form of regret, even the best, because they are cataloguing what is irretrievably gone.


Slow, ethereal music. Guitar. Distant steel guitar. Bells. Now the classic Shins melody: “Love is the ink in the well when her body writes.” We find sanctuary in our bodies. Ha! Congo drums.

“She loves… in spite of everything else.”

He is made okay, healed, by being cared for. Is this the best we have? Yes. Yes. The being cared for, and caring for, the specialness. The best friend’s house aglow, where you can go and make out with your girlfriend or boyfriend.

“It’s not that the darkness can’t touch our lives, I know it will in time. But she’s no ordinary valentine. And now, when the sun goes down, she sheds her darling light.”

This is so tender. Like the most quiet ending to a love poem, one that asks nothing, but says this reminds me of you.


The sun! The pace quickens. “… son of a government man” Big bass line.

“What have we done? How did we get so far from the sun? Lost, lost in an oscillating phase, where the tiny few catch all of the rays…”

Is this a commentary on our time? On our politics? The gap between the 1% and the 99%? Where are we, after all our private journeying through the forest and the night?

It’s not good. We have come from a condition of near equality, of entrepreneurial frontiersmanship, of the wilderness, of the great democratic Song of Myself, to this country riven by difference, by theory, by ideology, by wealth accumulation. This “dishwater world,” as he calls it.

“What do they charge? Letting go of a claim so large? All of our working days are done, but a tiny few having all the fun. Apologies to the sick and the young. Get used to the dust in your lungs!”

Bleak. What do we do when we arrive at the place where our private vision ends and our awareness of public issues, justice, equality, distribution of resources, begins?


We walk on. We amble along the side of this bluff. We see the waves crash on the rocks below.

Seventies faux-string backing: “Taken for a fool again. Because I was a fool.”

We all were fools, are fools. In the 70’s, many thought that the Sexual Revolution, Feminism, the Age of Aquarius, would lead to a kind of permanent change in consciousness. Instead, we got the Iranian Revolution, oil shock, Ronald Reagan, thin ties and Ray Bans. This song is surely meant to be the “terrible song” that it mentions — full of hooks, fool of backup vocals, and pledging continued idiocy. For what can we do. We strive towards love, we get Mitt Romney.

Made love, got war.

Stand with me here. Stop with me. Look out over the clouds. What do we do? Go inward again? Throw ourselves into the surf?


This is another 70’s-inflected song. The bass line speeds up and moves up the scale like a typical Paul McCartney progression. We are in the Wings period. His life was “exploding” and someone threw him a lifeline. Was it an older sister? Brass horns solo. This is suburban bliss, a boy’s bedroom. We are back in time. We are walking through a museum. “Sister you’ve known me… Lost in a strange world… What has it shown me?… What has it unfurled?…” Now he is speaking in present tense. He pulls us on, just as lost as we are: all these years later. What’s the point of anything? Even Halloween? He’s “lost his sweet tooth.” It ends:

“Your boy is losing count. Better try the lost and found.”


Guitar. Drums. A study of someone he watched, years ago. “Well, you plaaaayed in the street at night. You blew, like a broken kite. My girl, givin’ up the fight…” Some people give up. The same judgment creeping back in. We are with him now, judging too.

“Every single story is a story about love / Both the overflowing cup, and the painful lack thereof.”  

WE CAN’T GIVE UP. WE HAVE, ALL OF US, A PAINFUL LACK THEREOF. But don’t let “these American boys, put another dent in your life”!

The 70’s styling is now parody. You’ve got the falsetto, the falling-away guitar notes and background vocals, à la The Bee Gees.


A sneaky, winding melody. A high voice. Shades of Thom Yorke. Where have we arrived at last? A port?

“Under my hat / It breathes / The lines are all imagined. / A fact of life / I know / to hide from my little girls.”

He tugs at us. We race to a house, a family. But there is only mortality: “Ace of Spades / Port of Morrow / life is death / is life.”

We can stand in this house, this shelter, our loves, our families, our bonds that can never be broken (“I love you to INFINITY!” my children and I say to each other). But there are only imaginary lines.

“I know my place amongst the creatures in the pageant. And there are flowers in the garbage / and a skull / under your curls.”


Run! Run with me! Get out of this house. Get away from James Mercer. Get away from all of our needs! But he is running with us. “It builds up. / Then it breaks down. / It’s your perception alone… A flat waste of a life. / How many times did you try to stop / The bleeding, with a knife?”

So it builds up, then it breaks down. That’s all we have.

“What are you really getting out, when you sing? Something raw and beautiful?… Your voice bleeds through the wall: No Jimmy, no!”

We are running across a field. Along a wooden fence. Why do we do anything? Why?

A Chinese poet, Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi), wrote:

Who can free himself from achievement
And from fame, descend and be lost
Amid the masses of men?
He will flow like Tao, unseen.
He will go about like Life itself
With no name and no home.
Simple is he, without distinction.
To all appearances he is a fool.
His steps leave no trace. He has no power.
He achieves nothing, has no reputation.
Since he judges no one
No one judges him.
Such is the perfect man:
His boat is empty.

Is this it, then? Shall we all aspire to be empty boats? There — look out to sea with me! Do you aspire to be floating out there in the sparkling blue, with no provisions and no illusions?

“No, Jimmy, no!”

No, I say.

Run with me.

Let me watch the funny way you move your limbs.

You laugh at me.

I’ll laugh at you.

About Tom Clyde

The best place to learn about me is to read my riffs. What could be more revealing? Cheeky, maybe, but true enough.

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