It’s hard to believe The Shins have been around for over 20 years, though their first full-length, Oh, Inverted World wasn’t actually released until 2001. The Shins began as a way for James Mercer to experiment with some musical styles that didn’t quite fit into his other band, Flake.
Heartworms, their first release since 2012’s Port of Morrow, is a lush pop album and the first album, since their debut, to be produced – with the exception of “So Now What”- by James Mercer. With nods to some of his influences growing up, Heartworms feels like a roadmap, with Mercer as your tour guide.
Lyrically, the album goes from the subtle politics of “Name For You”, a call for female empowerment, to the autobiographical “Mildenhall”. “Mildenhall” was the name of the United States Air Force base in Germany where Mercer spent some of his more formative teenage years, particularly in regards to his love and exploration of music.
“Mildenhall” is an acoustic driven tune in which Mercer fondly recalls how a student “passed me a tape by the Jesus and Mary Chain” and “staying up late for cheap beer and rock and roll”.
Heartworms, while seemingly written primarily from the perspective of a teenager who is experiencing and discovering things for the first time, never feels contrived. Heartworms recalls at various points The Cure, The Beatles, and various other influences.
The subtle use of electronics, whether programmed beats or synthesizers, add depth and a sense of fun to many of the tracks. These additional flourishes are used with restraint – they’re meant to be there – and remind me a little bit of Beck’s Odelay. There are some interesting choices that may bring out a chuckle here and there. “Dead Alive” is a great track that has some distorted background vocals and a couple of, what may be, animal sounds and I’d challenge almost anyone not to bob their head or tap their feet to it.
The Shins have delivered an unabashed pop album, full of great hooks, melodies and sing-along choruses. Albeit, it’s a pop album filtered through James Mercer’s definition of pop, and when someone sticks to their artistic vision as Mercer has here, the end result is something special.