PORTLAND, Ore. — The doorbell at James Mercer's house — a spacious, tastefully appointed Victorian on a quiet residential street — buzzes with an old-fashioned clang so loud it's almost tactile. When he answered it on a damp Saturday morning recently, Mercer, the lead singer of the indie-rock band the Shins, was just sitting down to breakfast with his wife and two young daughters, and he seemed eager to talk.
He recounted the architectural history of the house in detail and hospitably showed off his barn-turned-recording studio in the back yard. But once conversation turned to Port of Morrow, the Shins' new album, out this week, he revealed some worries. For one thing, it had been a long time since the last Shins record. Maybe too long.
"I realized it will be five years since the last thing, and I remember thinking: Stone Roses," he said, referring to the British band whose reputation fell from, roughly, messiah to unwanted house guest in the five years between its first album (in 1989) and its second. "I was scared," he said.
Mercer's fans are used to his self-doubts as well as his warmth. The Shins, which he founded in Albuquerque, N.M., in 1996, became one of the most beloved alternative bands of the 2000s, exploring the evergreen topics of romantic anxiety and adult growing pains with a jangly, idiosyncratic sound and Mercer's strikingly naked vocals. As the group climbed to commercial peaks — movie soundtracks, almost 2 million total record sales — it came to represent a trajectory of indie success that remains somewhat rare.
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Yet with Port of Morrow, Mercer, 41, faces what could be his biggest challenge. Since the Shins were last heard from, he has dismissed the rest of the band and remade it as a semipermanent collective of well-traveled professionals, and he moved further from the Shins' scruffy origins with a tightly produced, eclectic record. Will his fans accept the changes?
The new album, produced with Greg Kurstin (Lily Allen, the Bird and the Bee), has some comfortingly familiar moments, such as Mercer hitting the emphatic high end of his tenor in the first single, Simple Song, and surf guitar breezes in For a Fool. But the newer kinks in the texture — martial themes, some Brazilian-inspired beats — might take some getting used to.
Mercer, who also plays guitar, made it clear he was prepared for some blowback. And he had a ready answer to the question of whether the Shins without the old lineup were still the Shins.
"This thing is something I started in my bedroom as a recording project, and to an extent it has always been that way," he said. "Its true nature is about the recordings. It's about me having my aesthetic vision realized however possible and then figuring out how to take that vision on the road."
The touring version of the Shins includes guitarist Jessica Dobson, who has played with Beck; bassist Yuuki Matthews of the band Crystal Skulls; Joe Plummer, drummer in Modest Mouse; and Richard Swift, a songwriter and go-to indie producer.
The Shins began as a solo vehicle for Mercer, but by the time of the group's debut, Oh, Inverted World, in 2001, a lineup had coalesced, and the music press embraced the group as a sensitive innovator with a mischievous streak. On the first album and the equally celebrated follow-up, Chutes Too Narrow (2003), the group could sound delicate or agitated yet never lost its smooth melodicism, and Mercer's near-falsetto seemed to scrape at pleasures and fears.
The band's sound was slightly out of step with the retro minimalism sweeping alt-rock in the early 2000s with the Strokes and the White Stripes, but the music struck a chord.
The songs on Port of Morrow still feature plenty of strained relationships and layers of questioning introspection. But there is a newfound maturity that Mercer said came with being a parent. He said fatherhood had pushed him to look outside of himself for inspiration.
A few of the new songs are even topical. The Rifle's Spiral, which opens the album, is a nightmare of religious war in the Middle East, and the incongruously upbeat, Beck-like No Way Down was written after he read an article about outsourced labor. The title track, which ends the album, is a grim meditation on death.
Just before stepping into his back-yard barn, Mercer made it clear that despite the changes, the Shins were still the Shins, and that he remains as self-deprecating as ever.
"These songs are very much in the wheelhouse of what I do well and what I have done in the past," he said. "So I'm hoping people will hear it and say, 'Oh, the Shins are back,' and I hope it will be a further cementing of our presence as a legitimate band with legitimate music.
"And to be respected," he said, then paused a moment. "To some extent."