James Mercer crafts a solid pop record by looking to the past, both sonically and lyrically.Aural Apothecary / Columbia Records, 2017
7.9 / 10
The indie scene at the turn of the century was a weird thing. The rawk bands were making their plays for world domination on either side of the pond, boy-bands ruled the charts, and the term “independent” had started to encompass almost every genre. It was into this pre-Arcade Fire world that marvelous pop songwriters started to make their voices known; bands like Spoon, The New Pornographers, and, of course, The Shins. Oh, Inverted World, their debut album, is chock-full of rubbery melodies, and has a nostalgic bent that colors the tunes; a burst of sunshine streaming through autumn leaves. Safe to say, Oh, Inverted World solidified James Mercer’s career. We don’t need to go into the Garden State thing.
So the Shins are back again, with Heartworms. “Name for You”, which opens the album, is full of the Sgt. Pepperisms found on their last album, Port of Morrow, and is all the better for it. The song is for Mercer’s daughters, and could have been a lame, mansplaining memo, but Mercer finds the poetry in the mundane, searching for understanding with lines like, “It’s a bland kind of torture/ You’ve played the mother and wife/ But what do you really dream of at night?” “Cherry Hearts” is a lovely tune that is brought down by that same gurgling production but possesses a classic Shins-chorus in “You kissed me once/ When we were drunk/ My head went rolling on the floor/ Past the window/ Out the door.” “Half a Million” is the closest Shins have come to a straightforward pop-punk song, and feels slight because of it.
The second half of the album is when things start to come together; starting with “Dead Alive”, Mercer reminds us of his distinctive talents. You can’t get pop music like this anywhere else. The title track spits out hook after melancholy hook, recalling Chutes Too Narrow centerpiece “Saint Simon”. Heartworms, if you were wondering, are parasites that kill animals, mainly dogs. Good one, James. Then there’s the other Zach Braff track, “So Now What”, which feels like it’s about Mercer’s domestic life. It just rides a golden melody into the sunset and never looks back.
Taking 10 years collectively to release the last two Shins albums, it’s always a joy to hear Mercer’s roundabout ear for writing and singing applied to the unique sound he has established for the group. Which is just him. And that’s no more clear than in the lyrics found on Heartworms. “Mildenhall”, uses OG-Shins-style folk to wax poetic about Mercer’s first encounter with weirdo (aka: cool af) music in a British school. “The Fear” closes the album on a high note with a sweeping, Peter Gabriel ballad about Mercer’s social anxiety. The song gets a lot of room to breathe with strings and a sighing accordion. It’s the first on the album to take a real step forward for the Shins. Stately and wise, it’s not a bad look.