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. Sure, there have been quirks from album to album, but no one has ever been unsure if they were listening to The Shins. The same can be said for Heartworms, even if it seems like Mercer is trying his damnedest to throw listeners off the trail.
It would seem that the faithful Shins fans that I’ve encountered are still vehemently split on 2012’s Port Of Morrow. Some are die hard supporters, while others have dismissed it as the blandest songwriting of Mercer’s career to that point. Still, several songs from that record — ‘Simple Song’ and ’40 Mark Strasse’ in particular — have endured as quintessential Shins tracks. Verbose upbeat indie pop is sprinkled around some downbeat acoustic-driven tracks and, regardless of your feelings about Port Of Morrow, you’ve got yourself a Shins album.
Heartworms takes the “pop” element of The Shins and kicks it into overdrive with a psychedelic twist. Kicking off the album with the fantastic ‘Name For You’, a jubilant and sunshiny ode to empowering women, the record never really strays from this formula. Although, for the most part, Mercer spends the rest of the album ruminating on aging rather than social issues.
Even the biggest deviations from the chintzy pop that largely defines Heartworms usually just equals some bizarre fusion between Mercer’s previous low-key balladry and his present fascination with electronic experimentation. The sentimentality of the country-tinged ‘Mildenhall’ is the strongest result of this imperfect blend, but other attempts on the record, namely the album’s title track, come up much shorter.
It is as if he was trying to satisfy an itch to try something new while holding on to what people know and love The Shins for. It seems silly to me to pass any judgment on an artist trying out new techniques, especially a musician who has been behind a successful project for 21 years (a feat I will almost certainly never achieve), but as a fan it is disappointing to see Mercer hesitant to go all in. It often works to a point, but it makes you wonder what he could have achieved by going way out there. Maybe he just didn’t want Heartworms to sound like a Broken Bells knockoff.
It may seem like I’m coming down a little hard on Mercer and Heartworms, which is an impression I don’t want to leave anyone with. This is a solid record and, when the experimentation with dreamy synth textures really takes, some beautiful moments emerge. ‘So Now What’ is a staggeringly lovely track buoyed by a vintage Shins chorus and the additional synth flourishes. The video gamey keys on ‘Cherry Hearts’ and ‘Rubber Ballz’ could propel either track to solid alternative radio play. Like Port Of Morrow, there are several tracks here that will help people rediscover their love for The Shins over and over again.
In the end, however, Mercer’s ambitions yield mixed results. When he hits the mark, he really nails it. The Shins have never sounded quite as beautiful as they do on the aforementioned ‘So Now What’. That’s the kind of nostalgia-tinged song that can transport you to the most poignant memories of your youth, a feat that is difficult to achieve with the kind of clarity that Mercer displays here. But when Heartworms misses, it misses small and that can be even more disappointing than missing big. This album is just a few puzzle pieces shy of being great, and that’s a damn shame.