The Shins used to be one of my favorite bands back in middle school. Hell, Chutes Too Narrow was, at one time in my life, my favorite album of all time. It was a shame that the band broke up after the fantastic Wincing the Night Away in 2007 due to “creative differences,” supposedly, but it was only the end of one era of The Shins.
“Mainly I was tired of being right in the middle and everything sort of revolving around me, including the friendship dynamics-slash-bandmate dynamics and the creative aspect,” frontman James Mercer explained in 2012. He and Danger Mouse went on to collaborate on their Broken Bells project, but then a funny thing happened: The Shins returned.
The group reappeared, but with Mercer as the only returning band member. Even with new touring band-mates, the group sounded exactly the same. In fact, 2012’s Port of Morrow might be one their best albums, and it was all Mercer. “We went for this big meal the other night because the Shins are releasing a new record,” he said in an interview with NME, “and then I realized that it’s just me in the Shins so all those people were there for me.”
However, the anxiety or loneliness of being a solo artist is nowhere to be found in his (or their) new record, Heartworms. When talking about The Shins’ song “So Now What,” made for Zach Braff’s film Wish I Was Here in 2014, Mercer reveled in “one of the best things I’ve ever done,” but despite a now third lineup change and record completely composed by himself, Mercer still hides behind the guise of “The Shins,” and he honestly sounds as happy as ever.
Yet again as well, it sounds undeniably like previous efforts, if anything a bit more Broken Bells/digital influenced than before. To compare it to anything non-Shins, Heartworms is probably most similar to Panda Bear’s Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper or even some of The Flaming Lips’ material such as Embryonic or the recent Oczy Mlody. The psychedelic musical-motifs are at an all-time high.
There’s something a little odd about Heartworms though, with light adolescent-like tracks “Cherry Hearts,” “Rubber Ballz,” and “Fantasy Island.” Sure, the Shins have always been an indie-pop band more than they were indie-rock, but there seems to be a hint of pretension in Heartworms that in earlier records used to just appear as great songwriting. “Sometimes it takes time to dig a new song, like when I heard ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ for the first time,” he told an audience at the Fox Theatre in Pomona, CA, “maybe this will be like ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’. This one’s called ‘Fantasy Island’.” Very much not the “Sweet Child O’ Mine” of his career, Rolling Stone described it as finding “Mercer with tortures of his own, nose-deep in vermouth and self-pity.”
If anything, some of Heartworms is undeniably cringe-worthy, such as the screeching intro of “Half A Million,” the barely understood vocals, and the lyrics of a man trapped in his past, regretting yet still harping back to the good ol’ days. The last and “all-important” inward-looking track “The Fear” even includes lines such as “can we hit rewind on somebody’s magic bong?” I’m sure the anxiety of knowing that he, in a little way, partook in the destruction of indie rock weighs heavily on him, as well as whatever else he happens to be going through, but when “The Fear” ends with him accepting that no one “really recognizes him anymore” before fading into silence, I will admit it hit a good heart-string.
For all that Heartworms is disappointingly not a good Shins record, it is something, and that’s the rebirth of James Mercer. On that very last track, he finally leaves the Shins behind and realizes that “it’s just me in the Shins so all those people were there for me.” Unlike previous efforts, this record wasn’t for us—it was for him.