American indie rockers The Shins recently released their 5th studio album, Heartworms. The band, formed in Albuquerque in 1996 and led by vocalist James Mercer, show no signs of hanging up their guitars yet. 5 years after their most recent offering, Port of Morrow, Heartworms takes the listener on an anecdotal journey through Mercer’s past.
Single and first track on the album is Name For You, an unbelievably catchy anthem that’s been seared into my brain from its many plays on BBC Radio 6 Music. It’s a brill opening track as James Mercer’s vocals haven’t changed an ounce and sound just as distinctive as ever. The bubbly electronic backing and kooky harmonies radiate with addictiveness and its poppy hooks marry together perfectly with the electronic sounds and guitars.
Painting A Hole has a heavier and bassier sound which is punctuated by deep synths and even nods to the Indian sitar. Mercer ‘s vocals reach dizzying heights on the chorus, creating an intense contrast against the bassy melody. The electronic whirlwind of a breakdown at the end is a brilliant close.
Cherry Hearts, my fave track on the album, is arguably even catchier than Name For You. The electronic keys and bass come together in a harmony that’s got a distinctly retro vibe. Some of the sounds make me think of experimenting with the pre-set keyboard sounds in school music lessons, just taken up a notch and no sign of “DJ!” Once again, Mercer demonstrates his vocal abilities and it leaves you wondering how you got through life before this track existed. One for the driving playlist.
The pace is slowed down a notch on Fantasy Island, mellow and guitar-led with subtle electronic flourishes. The acoustic breakdown is brilliantly soothing and the violin-esque echos are a great touch.
Mildenhall, with its acoustic stripped back sound, is a standout track on the album. A track about Mercer’s time living in Suffolk as a young teen while his dad was stationed for the RAF brings a wonderful insight into how his musical talent began. Just a few guitars and some accompaniment is all the track needs as its main component is the wonderful story that’s being told. It has a strong folk vibe, just like The Shins of old.
Rubber Ballz tells a completely different story entirely: one about a regretful liaison with a woman. Once again, electronic influences are rife on this track and there’s a strong light-hearted feel to the song in general. The theme and production aren’t so heavy giving it an air of easy breeziness.
A bit of rock and roll is brought the album with Half A Million. Synths and heavy guitar riffs come together with repetitive, pounding keys. Mercer lets his inner rock God out on this track, one that I can imagine is brilliant fun to perform live. The breakdown brings another excuse for a guitar fanfare and the backing vocals bring a somewhat hilarious addition.
Second single from the album, Dead Alive, despite its name isn’t depressing in the slightest. A little more downbeat but still uplifting, pounding folky guitar strums and interspersed synths characterise this track. The retro-sounding keys and folky beat make this track bound to be a new classic.
The album’s namesake Heartworms is a gentle ode to a love affair gone sour. The 60s-style keys suggest a story taken from a time past and coupled with the guitars brings all the best elements of The Shins together.
So Now What has a beautiful, sweeping melody and definitely another stand-out track on Heartworms. I love the way Mercer can switch up his vocals, bringing out a much softer, more ethereal side at the change of a key. Guitars still play a strong role here but take a back seat at the chorus, allowing the vocals to come to the fore.
And so The Fear provides the outro to The Shins’ 5th studio album. The most mellow and stripped back tune on the record, it’s a gentle goodbye. Mercer’s vocals bring an edge to the soft violins and guitar strums and there’s a slight off-kilter sound when the harmonies kick in. Some of the lyrics are a bit heart-wrenching and I suppose it’s the closest we get to a ballad on the album.
So the big question is how does Heartworms compare to their 4 former albums? I think it’s safe to say that Name For You and Cherry Hearts will soon be listed as classic Shins tracks in the same breath as New Slang, Simple Song and Australia. It’s refreshing to hear that Mercer is moving with the times and incorporating modern melodies and electronic sounds but by no means jeopardising The Shins’ alternative folk sound that they’re famed for. Ones for questionable album artwork, I’d say the Heartworms sleeve has the ability to divide fans right down the middle. It would however look pretty epic in anyone’s vinyl collection so surely that’s reason enough to give it a spin.
The band also plan on releasing a “flipped” version of the album, entitled The Worm’s Heart with re-imagined versions of all the tracks…
Find out more about The Shins here and have a listen to Name For You below and also the flipped version. Heartworms is out now.