The Shins are normally focused on the future, but Heartworms, their first album in five years and fifth since 2001, takes a small step into the past.
From the first notes of opening track “Name for You”, we get a hint that this album may not stray too far from its predecessors. The nicely placed “Mildenhall” hearkens back to old Shins music. We hear an acoustic guitar and distant, gentle electronic beats accompanying James Mercer as he shows off his lower range. In a Willie Nelson-esque singing style, he remembers being a lonely boy, moving around the country because his father, a member of the Royal Air Force, had to transfer locations. After a classmate passes Mercer a tape, he finds a passion for music and, as he sings: “That’s how we get to where we are now.”
Another lyric that takes us down memory highway surfaces in “So Now What”. After introducing the song with a mini-me of the iconic synth in The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly”, The Shins put the most memorable melody of the album in the chorus of this song. “I had this crazy idea,” Mercer sings. “Somehow we’d coast to the end/ Change lies in every direction, tonight/ Guess we’ll just begin again.”
Even recently, we’ve gotten a glimpse of The Shins beginning again — they announced that they’ll be giving away their trusty tour van. In a MTV Cribs-like video posted by the band, we get a look inside this janky vehicle, which they bought with the advance from their first Sub Pop record deal. As Mercer drives the 1990 Ford 350 Clubwagon, he says, “It’s going to waste, you know. It’s not being used for what it can do.” But one might think he’s not talking just about the van.
Fans respect artists who evolve, improve, and explore new sounds, or some combination of those. And it’s not always pretty, but it’s admirable as long as done valiantly and with curiosity. The Shins tried to do that; they attempted to step out of their comfort zone with Heartworms. And we see moments of that, like in “Half a Million”, a musical cousin to Weezer, or in all of the synth and computer sounds they experimented with throughout the album. But they ultimately held back. Instead, they dated themselves, making music the same way they always have, which makes for an enjoyable record, but also one that doesn’t take enough bold steps forward like “Mildenhall” and “The Fear”.
Besides these two songs, the record’s other high point is “Painting a Hole”, a song with a contagious beat and somewhat ominous la-las. The synth-keyboard sound pulses while the bass runs, sliding up and down the neck. Once you hit the chorus, Mercer shows off his edgier falsetto. I imagine Franz Ferdinand fans would appreciate this tune. Fortunately, the album sends us off with the best song, the aforementioned “The Fear”. It begins with a kick-ride-rimshot combo, joined by a mandolin and violins, creating a Mediterranean feel. Even though most of the song consists of two chords, it quickly proves itself to be the perfect ending to decent collection of songs.
Maybe five years since their last album, Port of Morrow, was a long enough time that The Shins itched for the good, old times. They wanted to re-live the same hangout spots, do the same fun things, smoke the same stuff, and start sentences with “Remember when…” Based on Heartworms, remembering is the new Shins.
Essential Tracks: “Painting a Hole”, “Mildenhall”, and “The Fear”