It’s hard to believe it’s been 16 years since the release of Oh, Inverted World. 16 years since we were first introduced to the quirky, uberly-talented Mr. James Mercer and his sparkling crew of Shins’ bandmates. I still remember hearing ‘Caring is Creepy’ for the first time: the convoluted, all-action verses and fizzing melodies blowing my perception of invention and creativity within the indie-rock underworld to proverbial bits. “That was fucking astonishing,” I remember thinking. Revelatory, in fact. Like the world’s biggest sweet tooth eating a spoonful of Nutella for the very first time.
The truth is, over the past decade-and-a-half the Shins have proved time and again an uncanny ability to write songs that are as catchy and poppy as they are artistically and technically profound. Rare is the instance when a mother can appreciate an artist as much as her blasé teenage daughter, but such is the dexterity of the Shins’ sweeping range of talent.
Heartworms – the band’s fifth studio album and their first new release since 2012’s Port of Morrow – is life-and-breath proof that talent and creativeness need not be cached over time by the perils of success or the agonies of lofty expectations. From the bob-your-head and sing-your-heart-out chorus of Shins insta-classic Name for You, to the intimate, folksy allure of the lain-bare Mildenhall, the record is yet another fantastic release from the peerless, irreproachable indie-rock demigods.
And as if we needed any further evidence, we can now surely say without question that Mr. Mercer is, in fact, a genius.
The album kicks off right where Shins fans would have liked it to, with the tricky verses and idiosyncratic swagger of the LP’s cardinal single Name for You, before dancing straight into the driving, thumping rhythms and upbeat synth melodies of Painting a Hole – a track inescapably reminiscent of 1980’s Siouxsie and the Banshees; artful, energetic, edgy, and fun as hell.
From there, we get a sturdy dose of Mercer’s abstract vocalism in the introductory verses of Cherry Hearts, a track that doesn’t seem to be onto much until it spins seamlessly into a pulsing electronic dance rhythm that backdrops one of the most memorable and catchy choruses on the record: ‘You kissed me once, when we were drunk / My head went rolling on the floor, past the window out the door.’
The crown jewel of Heartworms, though, comes in the form of the imperious, transcendental Fantasy Island – a mesmerizing relic of which even the harshest pre-millennial cynics would find difficult to believe is not a long-lost 1980’s masterstroke — surely one of the Shins’ – and Mercer’s – most impressive recordings to date.
The album’s other gems include Mildenhall – a stripped-down, neo-folksy ballad about Mercer’s teenage life in the U.K. as a military brat; Dead Alive – a whirlpool of complex rhythms and crisp, driving percussion intertwined in a milk bath of signature Mercer lyricism; and of course, the title track Heartworms – a kaleidoscopic jam that’ll make you wanna jump up and down with your arm around a cute, frizzy-haired hipster girl in the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd of a smoky, weed-filled concert venue.
As far as sustenance, the record – like with every Shins’ record – drips from the nose with Mercer’s signature delivery of intelligent, quirky, and at times whimsically-charged lyrics, which are most abundant in the energetic, pop-punk Half A Million [‘New set of dark thoughts to shut out, everybody’s got their remedies, but nothing works like chemistry’], as well as the interestingly-titled Rubber Ballz, in which Mercer seems to find a sarcastically masochistic side to contrast his otherwise softly-perceived demeanor [‘I just can’t get her out of my bed, should’ve mainlined saltpeter instead / My vices have voted, her ass duly-noted, can’t kick her out of my bed’].
The record concludes with the folksy, violin-buttressed The Fear – an interesting track that depicts a gooier side of Mercer and the Shins that we’ve yet to really see before, and are undecided on whether we’d like to see more of. A very listenable track – if not an inspirational one – but a bit of a questionable conclusion to an otherwise gleaming album.
All in all, Heartworms is certainly one of Mercer’s finest releases to date, though that’s a bit of a loaded statement given the fact that of their five studio albums, the Shins have yet to release a dud. Overall, a wonderfully balanced, exceptionally-produced record that was certainly worth the five-year wait since we’d last heard from the indie-rock gods.