Heartworms has to answer a different question entirely: where do the Shins go from here?
Five years is a long time to wait between albums, but fans of the Shins should be used to this by now. This is, after all, the second time that James Mercer has left listeners hanging for half a decade, but that last time served as sort of a hard reset for the band after the muted response to 2007’s Wincing the Night Away and Mercer’s dalliances with Danger Mouse in side project Broken Bells. The end result of that last five-year gestation period, Port of Morrow, was arguably better than it had any right to be, but it also served as a proper bookend to the band’s career up to that point. Thus, Heartworms has to answer a different question entirely: where do the Shins go from here?
If Heartworms is anything to go by, the answer to that question is “literally anywhere we fucking want.” Heartworms is eclectic in a defiant way; Mercer seems buoyant with his newfound freedom to redefine what constitutes Shins music. There are elements of Middle Eastern music (“Painting a Hole”), electro-pop (“Cherry Hearts”) and some of the folky elements that have always existed as part of the Shins’ sound (“Mildenhall”). Regardless of the style Mercer apes, there’s a real sense of enthusiasm in everything he does on Heartworms; one would never have expected the guy to make an album this relentlessly musically upbeat. In that sense, the album is a true step forward, regardless of how fans of the band may feel about Mercer turning another page.
Underneath the joy is a pain, though. Mercer’s anxieties were always fairly evident on early Shins albums, but the music here is used to add a sweet coating to Mercer’s overall bitterness. The gentle calypso of “Fantasy Island” disguises aching loneliness, for example, and the soft Byrds-ian rock of the title is undercut by Mercer’s bitter lyrics (“Well I guess that I’m just here to test your patience/’Cause you’re so smart and my tricks don’t work at all”). For all of its buoyancy, one would have to assume that an album with track titles like “The Fear” and “So Now What” would have a certain amount of darkness. It’s clear here that Mercer wants to deliver more than just sugary pop, and for the most part, Heartworms delivers.
However, there’s a common stumbling block with albums that try to do everything, and it’s a pitfall that Heartworms sadly falls into. It takes a rare artist to attempt a kaleidoscopic musical vision like this without relying on pastiche or half-formed ideas. While Mercer is certainly an accomplished songwriter, he’s not a miracle worker, and parts of the album find him falling flat on his face. The calypso textures of “Fantasy Island” feel cheesier than they should, and the less said about the skronking “Rubber Ballz,” the better. Furthermore, the album appears to run out of creative steam towards the end: while the last few songs are quite decent indie rock, they could easily be anything that Mercer would have included on Chutes Too Narrow or Wincing the Night Away. Heartworms fully displays Mercer’s artistic ambitions, but it’s evident that he may have been too ambitious this time around.
Regardless of its flaws, though, Heartworms is a welcome addition to Mercer’s catalog. Given the long gap in output and Mercer’s seeming disinterest in doing anything under the Shins moniker, it wouldn’t have been all that surprising if the album ended up being a dud. As it turns out, Mercer perhaps was a little disinterested in making Shins music again. Fortunately, instead of abandoning the band altogether, he moved them on into something different.