Another day, another early to mid 2000s indie rock band putting out a late career album that pales in comparison to the best acts that replaced them in the 2010s. This week’s contestants are The Shins, an Albequerque/Portland based band, fronted by and primarily composed of James Mercer (who, in recent years, found briefly himself in Modest Mouse and scored a Grammy nomination for his polarizing work with producer Danger Mouse in Broken Bells). Depending on how into indie music you are, you may either know the Shins as a band with a run of three straight good-to-great albums from 2001-2007 before slowing down and falling off as Mercer engaged his side projects, or you know them as the guys who sing that amazing song from Garden State. In either event, throughout their music, Mercer has displayed a knack for writing catchy melodies and pairing them with either sparse, melancholy progressions and arrangements or full, upbeat and happy ones. Heartworms (the group’s 5th LP) is rooted firmly in the latter style.
Heartworms is a largely traditional indie pop album. 11 songs, 42 minutes, an ebb and flow of higher and lower energy songs. The album kicks off with one of its catchiest numbers, “Name for You”, a head bopping, upstroking, bass bouncing pop tune featuring Mercer’s trademark lilting and swooping melodies and following a classic verse / chorus structure. The song serves as an able harbinger of what’s to come on the record, both musically and lyrically. The song is about aging women trying to get back on the market, the lyrics toeing the line between bitterness and strangely dated misogyny (“You can keep your can up / If you just never eat again”). That lyric, and others throughout Heartworms, are especially striking given Mercer’s friendly, innocent delivery.
As the record’s name might (or might not) suggest, Mercer’s feelings toward women, both individuals and in general, are a heavy theme on the album. Third-sequenced “Cherry Hearts” takes an offbeat drum-machined, synth-heavy approach to the wholly original concept of unrequited lust after an intoxicated romantic encounter (“You kissed me once when we were drunk / And now I’m nervous when we meet”). The setup isn’t far from a certain ubiquitous Sheeran radio smash, but I can’t get over the feeling that this seems childish from a 46-year-old who seemed light years more poetic and mature sixteen years ago when he was singing “And I’d’a danced like the king of the eyesores / And the rest of our lives woulda fared well“. The sixth-sequenced “Rubber Ballz” is maybe the most lyrically cringe-worthy song The Shins have released (guess at what that song title is a lewd reference to), and includes such apexes of human prose as “And I just can’t get her out of my bed / Wish I’d gone with her sister instead” and “My vices have voted, her ass duly noted / Can’t kick her out of my bed”. Again, the ironic twist is that melodically this is one of the most sober and beautiful tracks on the record. By the ninth-sequenced title track, Mercer is back on the losing end of romance – “Now I’m trying to figure out when it was you gave me these heartworms / I feel them wriggling in my blood, you gonna do me harm”. And again, the melody and production on this track, particularly the chorus harmonies (“What can I do?!”), the tinkling pianos, and the screeching guitars combine to prove Mercer has persisted as a more than capable songwriter.
The brightest moment is likely the centerpiece, “Mildenhall”, which is an origin story of sorts about fifteen-year-old Mercer moving with his family to an air force base in England and overcoming homesickness with the help of kind-heartened, music nerd classmates, inspiring him to start “messing with my dad’s guitar”. It’s a lighthearted strummer, featuring a few blissful synths and a low, honest delivery, offering a respite from the wailing, girl-crazy Mercer seen throughout the rest of the album.
The production throughout Heartworms has plenty of bells and whistles, with synths, harmonies, guitars and drum machines zigging to and fro on even the lowest-key tracks. And at their core, these are very Shins-esque songs, their melodies and structures fitting nicely into a later album like Wincing the Night Away. But that same familiarity solidifies it as a very safe album, as gone are Mercer’s alternating pained, aggressive vocals and thoughtful, melancholy ones, replaced by the more synthetically happy Mercer we’ve seen since Wincing. Where the songs are aplomb with studio trickery, they are lacking in emotion and resonant, heartfelt sentiment. The record is fine, and its catchier moments are proof that The Shins perhaps shouldn’t yet be put to death, but I think Mercer is gonna need a brutally honest record about, say, being an aging rocker in a young man’s game to move the needle at this stage in his career. Sexual angst and puppy love just aren’t doing the trick for music as mellow and low-stakes as this.
Score: 6 / 13