Release Date: Mar 10, 2017
Record label: Sony Music
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock, Indie Pop
'Heartworms' feels like a pretty accurate way to describe a collection of Shins songs: sweet, indie-folk numbers that burrow inside you, find their way to your vital organ and prod it until teenage levels of emotion are emitted. Many a pop culture moment has documented this emotional response to the band. We watched Gilmore Girl, Rory, dance awkwardly to The Shins during her first ever spring break.
Life can be hard for fans of The Shins. Since the early Aughts, James Mercer and his revolving cast of a band have undoubtedly risen to the top pantheon of the indie ranks, but have taken their precious time about actually putting stuff out. Their recent modus operandi seems to be taking five-year-hiatuses between releases. Back in 2012, the band released the glossy Port of Morrow to much praise, both because it was their first album since 2007's Wincing the Night Away and of course the end-to-end quality of the writing.
Rock has many artists who retain a consistent sound across projects. The Shins' James Mercer is one, and the sound of his fifth album under that moniker retains all that's good about The Shins, only slightly infused with tricks learnt from side projects like Broken Bells. As the only remaining original member, perhaps it's unsurprising. But what startles is the way the tracks contain the same sort of charm and warmth evident on 2001's Oh, Inverted World.
The Shins set a high bar from the start. The indie-rock group’s first two albums, 2001’s Oh, Inverted World and 2003’s Chutes Too Narrow, brimmed with quaint, idiosyncratic tunes and aching lyricism -- but on subsequent releases, frontman and sole constant member James Mercer has struggled to consistently nail that same potent combo. The band’s recent output -- and Mercer’s two collaborative albums with the producer Danger Mouse as Broken Bells -- has delivered scattered highlights like 2007’s “Australia,” while serving generally as a clearinghouse for Mercer’s sonic ambitions.
Dismantling the old Shins lineup must have been a bittersweet trade-off for James Mercer. On one hand, it freed him from the interpersonal conflicts inherent in running a band like a democracy, which surely was a relief to a songwriter who never prided himself on his people skills. But it also placed a weight on his shoulders. The sole burden of the band's music and image now falls squarely on Mercer, including formalities that never seemed to come to him as easy to him as the songs did.
Mercer is a poetic lyricist and his abstractedness continues on Heartworms. With all the extra bells and whistles on this record however, it takes extra attention to appreciate the details. Heartworms is a bit like stepping into an '80s fairground. The lights and music swirl and you feel like someone is playing Super Mario or Space Invaders in the nearby arcade.
The identity of The Shins became centered on its soft-spoken frontman James Mercer just before the release of 2012's Port of Morrow. At that time, the now 46-year-old singer/songwriter had to prove that this project still had staying power beyond the tidal wave of buzz he rode through the mid-2000s while also restaffing the entirety of his backing band. While he succeeded in taking The Shins to its biggest commercial highs (Morrow landed at #3 on the Billboard 200), this shift in focus from a group mindset to one-man-band was accompanied by a period of deep self-contemplation.
It's been five years since James Mercer and co. debuted new music to The Shins' vast fanbase. On their fifth studio album Heartworms, the (now) six-piece shows them going a long way from their folky indie-rock beginnings crooning "Caring Is Creepy" and "New Slang" on the idolized indie soundtrack from Garden State. Instead, the band finds itself heavily influenced by world music, psychedelia, and spooky guitar riffs— something Mercer definitely lifted from his time spent in Broken Bells.
For a band that have seldom changed up their formula, the Shins have managed to get formidable mileage from their brand of straightforward indie rock -- even their 2012 work with Kelly Clarkson and Sia producer Greg Kurstin, Port of Morrow, proved to be a buoyant triumph. So, with nary a weak album to their name, the Shins have returned from the second consecutive five-year break of their career with Heartworms, an album as varied, ambitious and stride-breaking as ever. Hand it to frontman (and only original member) James Mercer for recognizing that the Shins may have exhausted their original sound, as the 11 tracks that make up this fifth album come off blissfully indebted to a hundred different genres at once… and at the same time, none at all.
Since James Mercer rebooted the Shins with a new lineup on 2012's Port of Morrow, the project has been a more freewheeling affair, and never more so than on Heartworms. This is easily the most wide-ranging music he's made with any project, including Broken Bells. Within a handful of tracks, the band touches on psychedelic exotica ("Painting a Hole"), Weezer-ish new wave (the standout "Half a Million"), and throwbacks to the Oh, Inverted World/Chutes Too Narrow era (the title track, "Dead Alive").
James Mercer has been doing his amiably anxious alt-pop nice-guy thing since the Shins' strummy-sad 2001 debut, Oh, Inverted World, expanding his sound without diluting his signature shy intimacy. Last time out, on 2012's great Port of Morrow, Adele producer Greg Kurstin helped give Mercer's world-weary melodicism a sleek polish. Heartworms has more of a home-brewed feel, heavy on Beach Boys grandeur, New Wave kicks, squiggly synth-pop and warm-weather soft rock - with lyrics tenderly balanced between midlife malaise and youthful romanticism.
I n the years since their surge of popularity in the early noughties, the Shins have more or less been whittled down to a James Mercer solo project. This record, his first in five years, certainly has the markings of a personal voyage. As well as being self-produced, it is full of candid, heartfelt anecdotes mixed with committee-free experimentation.
The Shins are coming off the second consecutive five-year break of the band's lifespan, and fans have been anxious for a new crop of safe, down-the-middle indie jams. In celebration of yet another return, James Mercer, the band's leader and only remaining original member, has decided that the group's fifth LP, Heartworms, should be a little different from the rest. After all, The Shins have made a career from having a pretty reliable sound.
A quiet wish for validation surrounds most of James Mercer's musical decisions ever since he proclaimed The Shins to be a product of his own accord. He's in every way entitled to assert that it was driven from his own artistic motives, but perhaps the way he handled it, and with such haste, immediately discredited a band who's been ingrained in the minds of many as a truly collaborative project. From the barbarous schizo-pop of Chutes too Narrow to the beautifully textured Wincing the Night Away, it was a natural progression into well-deserved major label status.
The Shins have their niche down to a T by now. With four albums across ten years, James Mercer and pals have become the go-to name for romanticised indie. And returning five years after the big, bright ‘Port Of Morrow’, he's more contemplative on the band’s new album ‘Heartworms’. On ‘Port Of Morrow’, the band shared their first true ‘single’ in ‘Simple Song', a track which possesses a chorus the band hadn’t come close to achieving before that moment.
James Mercer has reached a point in his life when, if he sings the words “my girl,” he may very well be addressing one of his three daughters. Mercer does precisely that in the first moments of the Shins's Heartworms. On “Name for You,” Mercer calls out the patriarchal consignment of women to domestic roles as a “bland kind of torture,” and he encourages his daughters, and by extension all women, to fearlessly speak their minds and pursue their dreams.
When you're a mid-level indie rock band in the 21st century, taking five years between albums seems like a risky proposition. On the one hand, your name will probably fade from public consciousness (so you’ll have to spend some time reconnecting with your fans), but on the other, it's not long enough to truly trigger excitement and nostalgia (as in, "Wow! The Shins are getting back together! We gotta go to the show!!"). As a result, your group gets stuck in this middle ground, and your new album will likely inspire a lot of shrugs before anybody even hears it.
The disease of more. The Shins have come a long way since changing your life with an acoustic guitar and some tinny drums, a fact that's quickly driven into one's skull in the first half of Heartworms. Running the gamut from space-age chamber pop to Broken Bells-esque psychedelia to relaxed alt-country, the group's first record since 2012's Port of Morrow and fifth overall is their most expansive record yet. It's the sound of a band confident in their ability to stretch the limits of a well-worn sound and an expensive studio, content to indulge every little gee-whiz effect and track upon multilayered track.
This one's personal. With the Shins' James Mercer, you could never be entirely sure if he was writing about himself or someone else, whether he was peeling back his own life or just crafting stories set to beautifully appointed art-pop music. But on "Heartworms" (Aural Apothecary/Columbia Records), the first Shins album in five years, Mercer opens up in lyrics that are as emotionally transparent as his melodies.
At 46 and 45 years old, respectively, James Mercer of the Shins and Spoon's Britt Daniel might be the most prominent middle-aged guys in indie rock. And true to the passive-aggressive tendencies of the genre they represent, neither has risen by saying precisely what he means: To look back over these bands' sizable catalogs is to behold a trove of cryptic sentiments regarding phantom limbs, Japanese cigarette cases and bakers cutting their thumbs and bleeding into their buns. So it comes as something of a surprise to see that the cover of each group's new album -- the Shins' "Heartworms," which came out last week, and Spoon's "Hot Thoughts," due Friday -- features a creepy rendering of a skull -- about as literal a symbol of mortality (and one's uneasy recognition of it) as can be imagined.
The Shins' fifth album, Heartworms, could not have arrived at a worse time, dropping as it has at the tail end of an biannual debate over the viability of indie rock. The culprits this time are Dirty Projectors' David Longstreth and Fleet Foxes' Robin Pecknold, followed by all four Cloud Nothings clicking "Tweet", with Parquet Courts nudged into a rebuttal. It should be a truism that "indie rock" (for which the Shins once bore the standard) is a peculiar construct of race and gender and economic status.
You should take a person at their word, the old adage states, when without instigation they admit to a deep, dark flaw. On the title track of the Shins’ perplexing new album Heartworms, James Mercer sings, “Well I guess I'm just here to test your patience.” Boy, does he make good on that bit of honesty. Heartworms isn’t exactly an instance of total self-parody, a chunk of red meat thrown at his rabid haters.