The Shins aren’t the type to rush inspiration, and for their fifth studio album Heartworms they take essentially the same approach; slowly crafting a narrative that says a lot without revealing too much.
The biggest change is 46-year old Mercer standing at the forefront, unabashed and seemingly ready to confront some of his biggest fears. On the surface it is a lighthearted affair, but brewing underneath are a tangle of thorny emotions that give Mercer trouble. Just as he’s about to break free, he gets knotted up again and pulls back. It’s progress, but minimal progress.
At times the instrumentation can be a bit predictable — swarths of reverb, percolating synths, and of course, Mercer’s nasally pine — but that soft sound is Mercer’s cornerstone, cutting through those PNW clouds like a comfortable sun spot. Subsequently redundancy becomes an issue; hampering the lyrical direction in such a way that fails to capture the many shades of melancholy, both the gut-wrenching and bittersweet.
For Mercer playing it too safe is the difference between a good and great album. Nevertheless it is a subtle chapter in the Shins’ book that may not go fully appreciated until it’s all said and done.
A simple yet poignant question looms heavy like a thunderous rain cloud. Labels are all the rage, diluting any attempt at intimacy and knowledge. Instead of getting to know someone or something we’re prone to smack a title on it to avoid exposing our own ignorance. It’s a heavy topic but it sits nicely upon a jovial beat. Whether or not it’ll resonate is still to be determined: [LISTEN]
A sonic lava lamp that swirls into a panoply of psychedelic madness. The writhing makes for a turbulent ride, yet somewhere within the chaos a dense nugget of insight exists. There is a meaty social commentary to be heard, most notably the desire to escape. Painting a magical portal that’ll take you to another place is a start, but according to the Shins it won’t replace facing your fears head-on: [LISTEN]
The acid has kicked in, distorting views and altering perspectives in mind bending ways. He wants to hold on to the trip and let the good times linger forever. But the truth is he knows the futility of such a desire and concedes to the inevitable. Love is just as fleeting and the feeling of ecstasy is intoxicating. Knowing that it isn’t everlasting he lets go, but not without regret: [LISTEN]
Like Forrest Gump plowing through the marching band, the Shins take flight hoping to leave their problems behind. The mood is mellow and touched with a honey drop of bittersweet melancholy. In the end the whole charade is a delusional attempt at avoiding the inevitable, which doesn’t make the pain any less potent. Still, the desire to shut down and pull the blanket over the eyes is strong: [LISTEN]
Easygoing strumming turns back the hands of time, to a place where innocence and good times were the norm. The country western motif is strong and tailor made for the type of nostalgia being embraced. It’s an important coming of age moment for the album, and a break from all the abstractions of previous efforts. The idea is direct and clear, a message made of youth and naivety: [LISTEN]
Waking up in bed next to a stranger is terrifying, waking up in bed next to the same stranger over and over again is a bona fide horror story. He’s repeating the same mistakes and suffering the mental anguish of his erroneous ways. He quickly discovers he has no escape plan at all. And instead of jumping ship, he’s dragging it out to the point that he’s justifying the madness:
Predictable riffing reveals an unsavory characteristic. The redundancy of such mistakes can be endearing, but at this juncture it’s a self-inflicted gunshot wound. All the bellyaching makes the ears ring and with no respite on the horizon it becomes difficult to stomach. It’s self-loathing at it’s finest, which is fine for a moment but anything beyond that is petty nonsense: [LISTEN]
According to the Shins’ calendar everyday is Halloween, a slasher flick on constant repeat. There are zombies around every corner too, and the mass of flesh has them feeling spooked. Anytime the living dead are mentioned it’s almost a given that there’s a strong social critique trailing close behind. This is no different, and the main ideas are still intact. Nothing new, just blood and guts: [LISTEN]
Heartworms aren’t just for dogs, but sloppy humans as well. It’s a filthy disease that demands immediate attention as to prevent further damage. There’s an antagonistic tone to the healing process that contrasts well against the jolly strumming of acoustics. Together it’s a pleasant way to tell the significant other to buzz off and never come back. A sonic middle finger for the brokenhearted: [LISTEN]
Just because love is fickle doesn’t mean that you don’t dust yourself off and try again and again and again. The failures unfold in comical ways, but now it’s beginning to take on a more dramatic tone. It’s like climbing a mountain and the angles are steep and without mercy. He’s refusing to see the light, that love is hard. Instead he sugarcoats it once more, opting for the dreaded friend zone: [LISTEN]
The power of fear rears its ugly head, dissolving his aspirations to move forward. The simple percussion creates a soft atmosphere for him to ruminate over the paradox that stands before him. It is a serious matter that exists at the heart of nearly every song, and he’s looking to exorcise those demons one lyric at a time. The hope is that by the end, he’ll find what he’s always been looking for: [LISTEN]