The Shins - Heartworms

The Shins remind me of summertime and falling in love, friendship and adolescence. Their music has been the soundtrack for many of my fondest memories. They have somehow only released five albums in the past 16 years, which is perhaps why the quality of each one is outstanding. Their newest release, Heartworms, brings me back to some of my older memories with The Shins. James Mercer’s vocals melodies are on point, the production is unfiltered and filled with complex layers, the synths are unexpected, and the lyrics are mesmerizing.

‘Name for You’ has to be one of the most straight-forward opening songs I’ve heard on a Shins album, especially in contrast to ‘Kissing the Lipless’ (Chutes Too Narrow) and ‘Sleeping Lessons’ (Wincing the Night Away). The first three tracks are in the same vein as the usual Shins, but with an interesting twist that moves away from the folk vibe. It’s reminiscent of their third release, Wincing the Night Away, which utilized more experimental and funkier sounds.

As you make your way through Heartworms, the tracks vary stylistically and by tempo. ‘Cherry Hearts’ uses bouncy, cheesy synths in the verse, but the chorus is one of my favorites on the album: “You kissed me once when we were drunk...” ‘Fantasy Island’ is a bare, echoing song with disco-y synths and a tropical feeling chorus. It’s an interesting departure for The Shins, but they pull it off splendidly. The album easily transitions into a more country feel with the track ‘Mildenhall’. I love this song. It’s everything I want from The Shins; James Mercer singing in a lower octave, strange whirly sounds, pure acoustic guitar, and dirty percussions.

‘Rubber Ballz’, ‘Half a Million’, and ‘Dead Alive’ are all approached with a more old-school rock and roll ambience mixed with the usual experimental country quality that The Shins create. I like these tracks, but they don’t especially stand out. While they are produced well, I just need more of that emotional Mercer angst, please. ‘Heartworms’ is a good example with it’s catchy layers of reverberating vocals crying out “what can I do?”  The final line on the track is “You're the saddest dream that ever came true.” Now that’s the gloominess I was looking for.

Oftentimes, the last song on a Shins album is my favorite (‘A Comet Appears,’ ‘Those to Come’). I don’t know if it’s intentional, but it’s always emotional. ‘The Fear’ is not an exception. It’s very raw sounding with mandolin, strings, unusual percussions, harmonica and Mercer’s vocals weaving in and out of the track, not leaving you with a very memorable melody. This song feels more about the emotion behind the instruments, and Mercer joins along to help create a sorrowful scene.

For being five years since their last release, The Shins have produced a notable compilation. While Heartworms has their usual traits - strange sounds, haunting vocals, funky folk beats - it also seems to explore the depths of previously uncharted territory. As far as being their best release yet, I wouldn’t say that (I’m still a sucker for Chutes Too Narrow). Yet, I do appreciate their exploration with traditional country elements, rocking guitars, and warm beach vibes. Heartworms is nearly everything I hope for from The Shins and I’m excited to enjoy it for years to come.


by Amber Harris

Amber Harris