The Shins ‘Heartworms’ – Review

22 Mar

Back in 2004, Natalie Portman’s character in the film ‘Garden State’ told us to listen to The Shins ‘New Slang’. “It’ll change your life, I swear.” There was a time when The Shins couldn’t escape their association with that scene and yet very little of the coverage around ‘Heartworms’ has even mentioned it. Perhaps that’s because in 2017 the idea of such a quaint indie rock song changing anyone’s life seems as antiquated as Portman’s massive headphones or Walkman. But this was the world we lived in; a world of dreamers and dreams where indie rock signalled imagination and emotional intelligence. The Shins went on to score the highest charting Sub Pop release of all time with ‘Wincing the Night Away’, signed to a major label and shed most of the unreliable band members, all in the pursuit of indie superstardom. All things considered they became one of the best bands of the 21st century. Again, this ambition seems somewhat unbelievable only ten years on. Indie rock isn’t in the doldrums exactly but those qualities that made people believe a song like ‘New Slang’ could change your life, or send a band to the top of the charts, have been cynically superseded by ironic detachment, hip posturing and a crippling lack of aspiration.

It’s telling then that The Shins first album in five years is a much more modest release than their previous trilogy, and has no illusions of grandeur. The expansive, polished soundscapes of ‘Wincing the Night Away’ are completely discarded. The pristine pop punch of ‘Port of Morrow’ has been dulled somewhat. The album dials back on the far reaching ambition of those records, scaling down to a more manageable level in keeping with their earlier records ‘Oh Inverted World’ and ‘Chutes to Narrow.’ This feels realistic and in its own way somehow more romantic. Valuable lessons have been learnt in the process – they’ve managed to keep the arrangements dizzying, and the production imaginative but the homemade feel certainly works for The Shins in 2017. They’ve spent five years away but ‘Heartworms’ is a remarkably assured and enjoyable comeback.

So you can give a sigh of relief. This is a Shins record that sounds like a Shins record. It’s a legitimate worry these days that bands will change to fit in to the current climate – just listen to the recent Dirty Projectors album to hear how that often pans out. It’s might be damming ‘Heartworms’ with faint praise to say the best songs are the ones that play on traditional Shins strengths, with their usual palate of colours, but it’s true. ‘Dead Alive’ is pitched as a kind of sequal to ‘One by One All Day’, borrowing elements of it’s spooky melody and array of samples and it’s a gloriously catchy standout. ‘Name For You’ brings back the happy harmonies that seemed to get polished under the mix on the last album whilst providing an affirmative message for Mercer’s young daughters. ‘The Fear’ in particular would sit perfectly at home with ‘Chutes Too Narrow’s more lush moments (the song does actually date back ten years). Even after all this time there are few people in the industry who know their way around a pop melody like James Mercer.

The weakest songs are the ones that divert from the tried and tested formula. ‘Cherry Hearts’ and ‘Fantasy Island’ hint at an admiration for Grimes auteur pop but James Mercer is no young computer wiz kid and his inexperience awkwardly shows. At points on the album, and on these songs especially, the production feels overwhelmingly laboured, presenting Mercer as someone with far too much time, and money, on his hands, playing around with presets and effects to no obvious end. Perhaps this explains why the album took five years to get completed – that’s more than enough time to overthink and overproduce songs that would benefit from a far lighter touch.

It’s a distracting obstacle that these unsuccessful production experiments are front loaded on to the album. Album opener ‘Name For You’ definitely has too many elements competing for our attention. The bloated ‘Painting a Hole’, is track 2. ‘Cherry Hearts’ and ‘Fantasy Island’ are number 3 and 4. None of these are bad songs but they are badly mishandled and it damages their impact. It takes the gentle ‘Mildenhall’ to steer the ship back to familiar waters. That song establishes an autobiographical theme that runs through many of ‘Heartworms’ songs. It depicts Mercer’s childhood in Sulfolk where he sulked on rainy afternoons and listened to Jesus and Mary Chain mix tapes. On the gorgeously wistful title track he skips the story forward a few years, zooming in on an episode of unrequited love that seems to have left its mark on our lovelorn protagonist. He brings the story up to date on ‘So Now What’, a typically catchy synth-pop number, which succinctly describes the struggles of maintaining a happy relationship in the face of middle age and all its burdens. The message here, as throughout, is that some things in life come and go – including its challenges – but other things are consistent. Like love. Like The Shins.

8/10

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