Updated: Apr 27
After a five year break following Port of Morrow, The Shins released their fifth and most recent studio album Heartworms (excluding The Worms Heart, featuring inverted versions of the tracks from Heartworms). By their fifth go at it, the only original member left in the band was frontman James Mercer, just as he was the only original member on their previous record. With frequently changing lineups, Heartworms finds itself with a very unique sound much more in tune with the sounds of Mercer’s side project with Danger Mouse, Broken Bells, even more so than the previous record. With that being said, even though the sound is quite a bit different than the rest of their catalog, it’s still uniquely The Shins.
One thing that’s for sure is Mercer still has a serious knack for infectious, bright, indie hooks on songs like Rubber Ballz and Cherry Hearts. These choruses are pure dopamine rushes and Mercer ought to receive a lot of praise for the overall catchiness of the record. It is quite evident that Mercer was the driving force behind this album and yes, The Shins have always been his band, but on this album, it was taken to a noticeably farther extent, for the good and the bad. This was also the only of the five studio albums where he was the lone producer. Anyone who has listened to other albums by the group like Chutes Too Narrow or the masterful Wincing the Night Away, it’s noticeable how much less guitar there is on this record and how much more of the focal points lie around the vocals, and the keyboard effects. Whether that's for the better or the worse, it's quite evident that it's very different.
Mildenhall likely steals the show as the best track on the record, oddly enough it is also the most different and the most minimalist. Speaking of autobiographical tales of Mercer’s childhood on an Air Force Base in England, this song is about as peaceful and smooth as they come, even down to the sound of rain drops that starts the track. Two more elegant and beautiful tracks close out the record, So Now What and The Fear. Both tracks have symphonic undertones feeling musically a bit different than the general indie-pop sound of the record. Again, to no surprise the lyrics are ever so poetic and elegant, as has always been a staple of The Shins.
What’s certain is that Heartworms is the most different of the five records in The Shins repertoire, although at the same time, it may be their most precise and perfectionist-esque record to date. If you are a true originalist, and you believe Wincing the Night Away was too far off the original sound of the group, this probably is not the record for you. On the other hand, if you really liked the last two Broken Bells albums, you probably vibe with this album quite a bit. At the end of the day, this is James Mercer branching out in a very new direction. Heartworms does not compare to the impact and greatness of Chutes Too Narrow or Wincing the Night Away but it has its great moments, and shows a very different side of James Mercer than traditional Shins fans may have expected.