Album art courtesy of The Shins
Review by Daven McQueen
In 2012, The Shins presented fans with the somber, introspective Port of Morrow, then promptly retreated from the spotlight. Apart from a song recorded for the film Wish I Was Here, we’ve seen little new content from them in the past five years. Now, the band—or rather, James Mercer, who has been the sole permanent member for nearly a decade—is emerging from the gloom with Heartworms, a fifth album that is at once familiar in its style and refreshing in its sentiments. There is happiness here, triumphant even through the bittersweet undercurrent. Though not as cohesive as some of Mercer’s previous work, this release sets itself apart with its patiently optimistic tone.
The album opens with “Name For You,” an upbeat track about Mercer’s three daughters. Despite the sweet lyrics, however, the even, bouncy rhythm and catchy melody of this previously-released single do little to distinguish it from other alt-pop hits of its kind. This easy start turns rather rocky during the next two tracks, as Mercer’s vocals are masked by dissonant instrumentals. While The Shins have always excelled in their experiments with sound, much of their strength lies in Mercer’s unique voice. In these few tracks, we lose that quality to electronic beats and fast guitars.
It’s not until the fourth song, “Fantasy Island,” that the album begins to find itself. The echo-y style of this mellow track is reminiscent of Port of Morrow, but, as its title would suggest, with a distinctly whimsical bent. From here, the quality spikes. Between “Mildenhall,” a nostalgic retelling of his childhood in England, the upbeat “Rubber Ballz,” and title track “Heartworms,” Mercer assembles a heartwarming tracklist.
And by and large, this carefree, summer-struck vibe dominates the album: but there is also “The Fear.” In this final track, peace turns to sadness, the music simplifies, and Mercer’s vocals become distant and troubled. Here, Mercer sings about his anxiety with poignant simplicity, and in the long stretches where he holds his tongue, his instrumentals are equally sincere. Unlike most of the album, this track has been in Mercer’s back pocket for years—in fact, it seems more thematically linked to The Shins’ last release. Yet this song does not undermine the overall cheer of the album. “The Fear” does not feel stagnant—rather than wallowing, it is a recognition and acceptance of distress. It is, in its closing position, an intention to move forward.
Much like its final song, this album has direction—even if it does take a few tracks to find. In an interview with NME, Mercer notes his personal growth in the past decade, declaring that he is going “forever onward.” And certainly, his work seems to echo that sentiment. Heartworms showcases James Mercer as he is now, an established artist finding his footing as a one-man band. With this album, Mercer steps into his role as The Shins and moves, resolutely, forward.