Genre: Indie Pop/Psychedelic Pop
Producer: James Mercer
Release Date: March 10, 2017
The Oregon-based guitar pop group The Shins were one of the biggest indie darlings of the early 2000’s, gaining praise with their albums like Oh, Inverted World and Wincing The Night Away. Then the new 10s arrived, and like many of their contemporaries, The Shins struggled to stay relevant. The band’s line-up had whittled down to singer-songwriter James Mercer, who didn’t seem too comfortable in becoming the sole man in the spotlight. As a result, the first solo Shins album Port of Morrow felt a bit by-the-book and uninspired, as if Mercer was attempting to ensure the audience that “do not worry, even if it’s just me, it’s still going to be the exact same Shins you know and love”.
Now, after five years of waiting, the Shins return with their fifth studio album Heartworms. They have updated their sound into the electronic-influenced psychedelia of Animal Collective, Tame Impala and of Montreal, even if Mercer’s songwriting is far more accessible than any of his apparent influences. The psychedelic elements are only skin deep, giving the tracks some much-needed texture without veering into Flaming Lips-esque, pointless drone: “Name For You”, “Half A Million”, and the title track are all good examples of using the new aesthetic without muddling the strongest parts of the output of the Shins. In many regards, this is a successful face lift, and helps to differentiate Heartworms from its predecessors; something that Mercer seemed to be painfully afraid of on Port of Morrow.
Some highlights off the album include “Cherry Hearts”, where the grimy keyboards and pristinely clear guitars contrast each other, underlining the infuriating will-they-or-won’t-they story presented in the text; the stripped-down, folkish “Mildenhall”, which details Mercer’s teenage years as a lonely, awkward outsider connecting to his peers through music; and the closing track “The Fear”, which contrasts the anxiety-ridden lyrics with serene, lounge-influenced instrumentation. “Fantasy Island” and “Painting A Hole” are probably the deepest ventures into psychedelia: the former is a steadily flowing synth track, while the latter chugs on with a relatively heavy guitar groove. Both songs are fine, but especially the latter track shows that the psychedelic influences sit best with the Shins while they’re being used in style and not in substance.
On Heartworms, James Mercer feels like he’s finally comfortable having the Shins as his personal project, walking away from the shadow of a band it used to be. While some times the psychedelic influences make the album feel a bit disjointed, they work mostly for the album’s advantage: only the future will show if this change of style is something the Shins will explore further.