The Shins are back after five years with a new studio album called “Heartworms.” The indie-alternative rock band took an enormous shift from its usual, laid-back sound. The album, produced by lead singer James Mercer, is far more reliant on the use of upbeat tempo, synthesizers and new band members to spice up choruses.
With “Heartworms,” The Shins show growth since their 2001 release of “Oh, Inverted World,” which features more hushed vocals mixed with mellowed, depressed tones. The Shins make very few musical deviations from song to song, making it easy to get lost in the album.
This isn’t to to say “Oh, Inverted World” isn’t well done, but there is little to take away from it. What’s special about “Heartworms” is that fans who expected The Shins to evolve, improve, and explore new sounds — or some combination of those — can be satisfied by this new release. Exploration into new musical territory isn’t always pretty, but it’s admirable as long as it’s done valiantly and with curiosity. The Shins tried to do that; they attempted to step out of their comfort zone with “Heartworms.”
The album opens up with “Name For You” with a bubbly, light beat. Mercer taps into his higher-range falsetto vocals with this track. The song was written for his two daughters, to remain carefree, hopeful and overall true to self in their lives.
“Fantasy Island,” the first slowed-down song, includes overlapping vocals, synth arpeggios and keyboard notes to create a dreamy, sonic sound that helps the imagery of a ‘fantasy island.’ Influences from early rock psychedelic pop bands, like Pink Floyd, shine through in this track.
The next song, “Mildenhall,” is reminiscent of nostalgic, comforting folk that The Shins have become so popular for. Mildly reminiscent of Willie Nelson’s singing style, Mercer bends his voice over an acoustic guitar and a gentle, electronic beat.
Mildenhall, a town in England, is where lead singer James Mercer partially lived while his father was stationed there. The folksy-influence that Mercer brings to The Shins comes from his father’s country band he hung around as a little kid.
“Mildenhall” has a welcoming guitar riff, and paired with sentimental lyrics like, “Whittling away on those rainy days/ And that’s how we get to where we are now,” provokes warm and fuzzy feelings of the nostalgia of growing up. Mercer opens up personally on this track, making it one of the signature songs on the record.
It would be silly to say there’s no timeless Beatles influences with a number of the tracks on “Heartworms.” The songs, for the most part, stay true to The Shins rock foundation but with the added elements of orchestral rock, surfy riffs, summery melodies and experimental amounts of reverb. Mercer sings about someone who is chasing after a lover, who is giving them mixed signals. In this context, “Heartworms” represents a metaphorical infection to one’s heart that love can bring.
Each song on “Heartworms” has refined musicality in their own effortless way. Whether it’s a folk or a psychedelic pop sound, The Shins do it well.
The Shins have proven with “Heartworms” that they can effectively cover a wide range of sounds. Time seems to have no effect on the band as they continue to release heartfelt music, which sounds wildly different than their previous material. “Heartworms” is real in that each track has raw meaning, but they expressed these stories with an entirely new sound.