The Shins – Heartworms (Columbia)

Shins albums sometimes pass me by on first listen (Oh yeah pretty melodies but haven’t I heard it all before) but then something happens and I find myself humming a phrase or singing a few words and wondering where does that come from, and before you know it I’ve watched the video and downloaded the album. I guess that is what earworms do. Well, the name of the latest self-produced album, Heartworms would seem to imply that main man James Mercer wants us to do more than that. He wants us to take his songs into our hearts.

Always twitchy, odd, and slightly melancholic, the lyrics and vocals have usually been delivered on a bed of summery guitars, gentle synths, soaring leaps and quirky rhythmical patterns. And so it is on album number 5, with the opening trio of Name For You, Painting A Hole and Cherry Hearts suggesting not much has changed in the songwriting process.

Name For You is a rush of encouragement inspired by his three daughters, Painting A Hole sounds like a great lost Echo & the Bunnymen track and Cherry Hearts is steeped in the kind of nostalgic young love experience that is his stock and trade.

There are new flourishes with the artistic paintbrush with Mildenhall approaching a straight country song with a beatbox backing. It perfectly suits the subject matter of a young 15 year old James experiencing time in England tagging along with his country-western  singing Air Force-stationed father. You can feel the boredom and anxiety even in the deadpan delivery. And the boldness of the sunshine pop of Rubber Ballz shines like never before with it’s clever “Can’t get her out of my bed” refrain and bouncing ba da backing vocals.

If The Shins were your indie darlings and you favoured the low-fi pop of  debut Oh, Inverted World  over the polished production of  2012’s Port Of Morrow, then I can report that this album tries to have it both ways. In general the production is close and low key but still a long way from the Sub Pop garage of the aforementioned debut. This is not necessarily a bad thing to these ears. If a song suits a fancy open sound it gets it. Dead Alive is awash with reverb and has an ending that would have been at home on The Smiths’ masterpiece The Queen Is Dead. Like Morrissey Mr Mercer is always happy to mine relationships for inspiration and so on the title track we are in familiar territory with the lyrical barb of “Well I guess I’m just here to test your patience/’Cause you’re so smart my tricks don’t work at all/”

Similarly, closing track The Fear lays bare the anxiety that underpins a lot of these songs with lines like “Feel the fear/Of all the stupid things a man could feel/while his freedom rings, He squanders the deal” it is clear the burden of writing songs, producing an album, and fronting a touring band takes it’s toll. It is a bit of a downer way to end the album.

Essentially a James Mercer solo album in all but name, Heartworms plays to surefooted, if familiar territory. There are definitely fewer Woo Hoo’s and joyous handclaps in evidence and the mostly intimate production ups the melancholy as the album wears on. Musically it contains plenty of The Shins’ trademark hooks and fussy arrangements and as in the past, each play reveals new aural delights. Is it a Heartworm?  It’s too soon to tell. These things take time.

Brent Gilbin