The Shins

Columbia, 2017


REVIEW BY: Ludwik Wodka


It’s hard to believe sometimes that it’s been 16 years since the release of the Shins’ debut album Oh, Inverted World. But over that time, the albums have come slowly; the last Shins album, Port Of Morrow, appeared five years ago.

In that time, James Mercer released a follow-up album with his side project Broken Bells (a collaboration with Danger Mouse). Up to that point, the trajectory of Shins albums had begun with idiosyncratic indie pop, characterized by Mercer’s unique melodic style, with each successive album becoming more polished, more carefully crafted, and more mellow. This culminated in my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Port Of Morrow’s beautiful, occasionally sentimental collection of songs showcasing more mature, but still potent songwriting.

This brings us to Heartworms. Right from the opening track, “Name For You,” I could hear that Mercer was returning to more upbeat tempos and a melodic style reminiscent of the early albums, with its unexpected twist and turns. The most obvious difference, though, is the musical arrangements, embracing synthesizers and sound effects to a greater extent than on previous efforts. It might be easy to ascribe this to a blurring of lines with the Broken Bells, and there is merit to this claim.

The best material on Heartworms comes in the first half of the album. The opening sequence of “Name For You,” “Painting A Hole,” “Cherry Hearts,” and “Fantasy Island” builds a great deal of momentum with four excellent songs in a row. These songs showcase the more adventurous material, incorporating the synthesizers and sound effects to great effect. Other highlights include the bright retro-pop of “Rubber Ballz” and the dream pop of “So Now What.” “Dead Alive” could easily pass for an outtake from Chutes Too Narrow (from 2003) with its reverb-drenched vocals and syncopated rhythm.

The country-inflected ballad, “Mildenhall,” sounds somewhat misplaced on this album. This, along with the meandering closing track “The Fear,” are my least favorite on this album. Both tracks lack the melodic punch delivered by most of the others. Perhaps in a different context, this song might be more effective, and would better showcase Mercer’s very personal lyrics.

Fans will debate which Shins album is their best, but make no mistake, Heartworms is a very good one and contains material that stands up to the best in the Shins catalogue. Perhaps more than any of his peers, Mercer is not only aging gracefully as an artist, but possibly even getting better.

Rating: A-

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