Heartworms - The Shins
American indie-rock ensemble The Shins set an impeccably high bar from the get go. The bands debut album, Oh, Inverted World, introduced to the world The Shins’ quaint persona, idiosyncratic musical abilities and heart-wrenching lyricism, bringing to the table tracks such as “New Slang” and “Caring is Creepy”, which to this day maintains iconic status within the indie genre. James Mercer, the captain steering the ship, is a force to be reckoned with - poetic, innovative and amiably anxious, all traits of which are resuscitated on the Shins first album in 5 years, Heartworms.
Image Credit: Spin / Tidal / Newbury Comics
Illustrations: Jacob Escobedo
Mercer himself described the albums opening track “Name For You” as a hopeful ode of empowerment to his beloved daughters. With conspicuously upbeat tempos, Beach Boys inspired vocal work and flamboyant lyrics of encouragement - “In the mirror reflects a woman in her prime” - , Heartworms' opener truly stands as a female empowering anthem. The record then proceeds into synth and bass heavy track “Painting a Hole”, a song which boasts Mercer’s edgier falsetto and demonstrates chord sequences unlike much heard before within any of the albums predecessors.
The album’s centrepiece “Mildernhall” poses as a nostalgic track that revives the shy and anxious sounds of the bands debut. The track retains a cowboy country sound, liking to that of Johnny Cash or Don Williams, however rather than portraying themes of trucks and whiskey, the song is a nostalgic trip into Mercer’s childhood growing up in Suffolk, England, reflecting on first encounters with guitars, skateboards and the Jesus and Mary Chain. The albums title track, “Heartworms”, has a similar ponderous feel with a psychedelic infused rhythm, likening to the sounds found on an Unknown Mortal Orchestra track. In a comparable situation with a more boyish hopefulness, the track asks - “What can I do?” - despite the described friend-zoning being pushed upon our protagonist, leaving everything down to a matter of interpretation. Mercer once sang - "I don’t look back much as a rule" - , yet tracks such as “Mildenhall”, “Heartworms” and “Cherry Hearts”, which avowals - "you kissed me once when we were drunk" - , all juxtapose this statement utterly, each posing as a euphoric yet nostalgic ode to Mercer’s childhood.
Since their formation in 1996, The Shins has always consisted of James Mercer, accompanied by a rotating line-up of additional musicians. But with Heartworms, an eclectic blend of new musicians have been added to the bands ensemble. It plays as a testament to Mercer’s solidity and barefaced visualisation that the inimitable sound that once shaped the band in the early 2000s still persists. However, after repeated listens of the record, you get left wishing that the band would have perhaps strived in a slightly newer, re-envisioned version of their signature sound rather than playing it safe and sticking with what they know. Certain tracks on the record give the sensation that they are merely re-workings of tracks and ideas from Heartworms predecessors, thus lacking a degree of ambition and new direction, which, after a five-year break, certainly could have become a reality.
"Dead Alive" video
Directed by: Jon Sortland
Created by: Jon Sortland and James Spencer
Despite these flaws, the album ends on a high. Closing track “The Fear” begins with a Lennon-esc rhythm and structure and with contemplative and philosophical undertones, you can understand why. “The Fear” is an isolated organism, placing Mercer in a realm of the unknown, deep in the depths of uncertainty. The swell harmonium and clacking beat breathe deeply as if to overcome hyperventilation. Compress this with Mercer’s anxiously radiating lyrics and we have a closer every album in existence should strive for.
Although Heartworms may not go down as the greatest feat within The Shins prosperous discography, it sure as hell will go down as a flagship album demonstrating everything we’ve ever loved about The Shins and the consistency that James Mercer is able to convey.