The Shins ‘The Worm’s Heart’ – Review

6 Feb

‘The Worms Heart’ finds The Shins reimagining, reworking and re-releasing last year’s brilliantly life affirming ‘Heartworms’. You don’t need any excuse to listen to that great album again but ‘The Worm’s Heart’ gives you one anyway. It’s being presented as a sort of stripping back, and for all it’s inspired melodies and typically beguiling lyrics, ‘Heartworms’ did feel a little busy and overly complicated at points, as if James Mercer had spent too long at the stove faffing about with seasoning when the basic ingredients were tasty enough to begin with. It’s a point he conceded in a recent interview where he said ‘Me, sitting there tinkering forever and getting too deep into the details of things — I think that ended up with having some of the Heartworms mixes being overwrought. ‘The Heart’s Worm’ then, in theory, works as an antidote, and its highlights succeed for exactly that reason.

‘Cherry Hearts’, the most spazzy and distracting moment on ‘Heartworms’ is here more simply rendered as a straightforward power pop song. The melody, always engaging, now has the space to truly stretch its legs. ‘Fantasy Island’ works for similar reasons. The 80s influenced song has been stripped of its shoulder pads, double denim and wayfarers and given a more laid back indie pop make over.

But as on ‘Heartworms’, Mercer wasn’t able to suppress his overactive imagination or controlling tendencies for long – despite the best of intentions ‘The Worms Heart’ is actually considerably more dizzying and ‘overwrought’ than the original album. It skits uncomfortably from genre to genre, tempo to tempo, mood to mood, so that the effect is akin to being on the most unpredictable rollercoaster in existence (a simile that makes the album sound considerably more exciting than it actually is).

The original album’s track listing has been flipped so that it now opens with a slouchy version of ‘The Fear’, a gorgeous meditation on an ageing relationship that still feels like a closing statement rather than an opening gambit. ‘Name For You’, therefore becomes the big finale, and likewise it doesn’t really suit its new fixture, nor does the funeral march tempo enhance the song’s naturally bouncy melody or sprightly lyrics. ‘Painting a Hole’, already the weakest song on ‘Heartworms’ from a songwriting stand point doesn’t benefit from a bare bones stripping of the psychedelic sound effects and original, effervescent arrangement. These new versions are so misguided it makes you wonder how a songwriter as gifted as James Mercer could have so little understanding of how best to render his own material. Before ‘Heartworms’ the only time he’d self-produced was on the band’s debut, a muddy sounding collection of endearing but hardly demanding indie rock songs. That record was recorded quickly out of necessity whereas Mercer sat in his home studio recording ‘Heartworms’ and ‘The Worm’s Heart’ for literally years. The difference will be obvious to even the most casual listener.

But all things said, those songs were some of the most engaging indie rock tracks of the past twelve months, and even dressed in odd new clothes that still remains true. All in all ‘The Worm’s Heart’ may be a misguided album, but it’s an enjoyable on . At times in fact, it’s an absolute blast. ‘Heartworms’ slinky disco makeover is elastic and ridiculously catchy (but then the song was already pretty fab in the first place). The reggae-lite lilt of ‘Half a Million’ and the garage rock stomp of ‘Mildenhall’ offer fresh flavours even if they don’t best their original incarnations. ‘Dead Alive’ now has a haunting arrangement to support its eerie lyrics though its melody is stretched and slowed like a record being played at the wrong speed.

This kind of track by track breakdown and comparison is kind of pedantic and nerdy, which perhaps tells you all that you need to know about ‘The Worm’s Heart’ – it’s an exercise in production targeted mainly at The Shins hardcore fans. The kind of people who have spun ‘Heartworms’ to death and are interested in something new to dig their teeth in to. I’m here for that – just not massively impressed with most of the new versions. Which makes me wonder what an unencumbered listener would make of it, in the unusual circumstance that they would hear it before ‘Heartworms’. I can’t see anyone picking this up over the original, and nor should they, but if they did what would they make of it? My main question though, is what could James Mercer have achieved if he’d spent the past twelve months writing new songs instead of pouring over old ones?

6/10

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