The Shins, a Portland-based band formed by singer-songwriter James Mercer, has defined its place through its signature melancholic pop sound and Mercer’s incredibly smooth range, aspects that brought the band mainstream fame after its debut album Oh, Inverted World.
Praised for his lyrical profundity, Mercer has stamped himself as as good of a writer as he is a vocalist. Throughout the band’s 21 years, he has explored youth, creative passion, depression and more with evident resonance. The band’s fifth album, Heartworms, may be Mercer’s pinnacle exploration. The 11 songs showcase an experimentation — in folk, country, psych pop and more — to a degree not seen in The Shins before.
The result is perplexing, admirable and emotional. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work on the grander scale. Heartworms explores Mercer’s life experiences in the 70’s and 80’s and thus takes note from psychedelic sound reminiscent of Pink Floyd, but the band can’t quite pull it off.
Immediately, track two, “Painting a Hole,” is overwhelmingly layered. Mercer’s voice is masked by special effects, and his smooth style isn’t rough enough for his psychedelic screams to work. There’s simplicity in every great Shins song, and the album’s second song lacks any such accessibility. The chorus of track three, “Cherry Hearts,” affectingly showcases Mercer’s range, but in the verses, the chaotically varying pitch of the instruments fights against his impact.
Heartworms hits a middle ground between experimentation and the band’s signature sound on “Rubber Ballz,” “Half a Million” and title song “Heartworms,” but these become either entirely standard or tonally imbalanced. “Half a Million,” in particular, touches on Mercer’s period of experimenting with drugs. “I take the drugs but the drugs won’t take,” he explains in the first verse. The song makes the mistake of layering its chorus, both instrumentally and vocally, in a bland high school dance style.
Thankfully, Heartworms does, if only occasionally, hit that sweet spot of resonant, beautiful music whenever Mercer shows his mental struggle rather than describing it. “Fantasy Island” shows listeners Mercer’s adolescent struggle with anxiety, and the melancholic storytelling mixes sublimely with the psychedelic undertones. He’s not directly describing the afflictions; he’s showing how they felt. Everyone who has felt the same can relate to the moving lines, “And I don’t want to show you my feelings / I don’t want to force you to deal.”
Mercer evokes folk and country vibes in “Mildenhall”; in talking about the song, Mercer even specifically referenced Merle Haggard as an inspiration. Mildenhall is an air force base in England, and Mercer’s dad was in the U.S. Air Force, meaning that he had to move around a lot as a kid. Mercer seems to hint that, in Mildenhall, he found a love for music. “A kid in a class passed me a tape,” and the varying second lines of the refrain are beautifully sung in a nostalgic, melancholic reflection, relaying the story of how his life changed because of these musical adventures with a friend.
The album’s close, “The Fear,” showcases what is perhaps the most moving writing Heartworms has to offer. “This fear is a terrible drug / If I only had sense enough / To let it give way to love.” Mercer really knows how to translate anxiety musically. His instrumentation reflects it. His somber voice is a suppressed self.
Nothing on the album is as catchy as much of The Shins’ past work. Heartworms could have been more potent, however, had it been pared down to the core four or five songs that defined his youthful anxiety, but that probably wouldn’t have been right for what Mercer wanted to do. While he may have gotten lost, there’s no denying the conviction bleeding through Heartworms. And while it was clearly not intentional for this album to be subpar to the rest of The Shins’ work, it does seem as though it were Mercer’s intention to take listeners on a messy ride that he probably didn’t even know how to end. If Mercer’s youth can be defined by experimentation and exploration, then Heartworms mirrors that journey earnestly.