The Shins experiment with new sound on ‘Heartworms’

By Thomas Infante
Arts & Entertainment Editor

After five years of anticipation, indie rock band The Shins released its fifth album, “Heartworms,” on March 10. It’s the first release since the band’s 2012 album “Port of Morrow,” which is when the band saw major personnel changes. The only original member of The Shins remaining is lead vocalist, guitarist and songwriter James Mercer, who is now almost solely responsible for creating the band’s music.

 Although Mercer has not lost his talent for quirky lyrics and catchy musical arrangements, he has abandoned much of the edgier indie rock inspirations of The Shins’s first few albums. “Heartworms,” in contrast, has more of a pop-influenced sound with some psychedelic and electronic elements that take some minor risks with the band’s tried-and-true sound.

‘Heartworms’ is the first album released by the band in five years. (Flickr)

 The singles released from “Heartworms” thus far could not be any more different. The lead single “Name for You” acts as a sort of summary statement for the entire album. It’s a fun song, with Mercer’s silly lyrics and high-pitched singing complementing the cheerful instrumentation. The song gets repetitive quickly, however, and doesn’t stand out from a creative or musical standpoint.

The other single “So What Now” was released as part of the soundtrack to the 2014 film “Wish I Was Here.” This song is mellower, with airy synthesizers that crescendo with the percussion into a strong, memorable chorus.

The disconnect in both the sound and release dates of these tracks epitomize the album as a whole. While the songs individually are above average, it doesn’t seem that Mercer had much of an idea what he was trying to achieve with “Heartworms.”

 None of the songs on “Heartworms” are terrible, but several of them sound like outtakes from previous albums or from his side project, the indie rock band Broken Bells. The song “Dead Alive,” for example, is pretty good, with some eerie synthesizers and trippy vocal harmonies and effects that give the track some ethereal qualities while remaining upbeat.

However, there is nothing about this song that sonically separates it from the last decade of material that Mercer has released. The song could easily fit on 2007’s “Wincing the Night Away,” the last album released featuring The Shins’s original lineup.

 Other songs are so forgettable that it’s hard to believe that it took five years to put this album together. This is not to say that every song previously released by the band has been a standout masterpiece, but The Shins’s sound did not suffer from the overproduction until  “Heartworms.”

The song “Fantasy Island” sounds extremely artificial, with layered synthesizers that all blend into one another in the blandest way possible. Mercer’s distinct voice is drenched in effects to make it echo, creating a sleepy soundscape.

The album picks up around the midway point and from there the songs are mostly solid, even if some sound reminiscent of the band’s earlier material. “Mildenhall” is an acoustic ballad with a western folk tinge to it. Mercer’s lyrics detail his childhood experience of moving to England to be near his father who was stationed there for the Air Force.

Mercer moves the band’s sound away from indie rock on ‘Heartworms.’ (Flickr)

The small details in his phrasing, from a classmate giving him a cassette tape of indie band Jesus and the Mary Chain to skating along cobblestone paths, give the song a personal quality that feels absent elsewhere on the album.

Half a Million” is the only song on the album to prominently feature an electric guitar in the instrumentation, which is a breath of fresh air from the other synthesizer-heavy tracks. The guitar power chords combined with the keyboard riffs create a danceable and energetic sound, while Mercer’s lyrics discuss growing up and taking responsibility for one’s actions.

The album ends with the song “The Fear,” which “is about someone who realizes that he missed an opportunity with a relationship and he’s sad about it. The door has closed and he’s sad about it,” Mercer said in an interview with NME.

While the title and lyrics of the song are melancholy, the music is calm and blissful. The instrumentation draws from Latin music, with percussion instruments that sound like maracas and claves present in the rhythm section. Mercer also makes use of ukulele, harmonica and violin on this track, giving it easily the most sonic diversity of any song on this record.

Overall, “Heartworms” is more disappointing than it is bad. With Mercer’s dominant creative lead, The Shins are now less of a band and more of an ongoing musical project headed by one individual, like Justin Vernon’s band Bon Iver. Hopefully in time Mercer will learn to develop his own distinct sound without his old band mates, or cave in and rehire them.