The Shins have never been a band to take risks. After accomplishing the impossible by striking a remarkably original, balanced, and mature sound on their first record, growth seemed both unnecessary and improbable. Heartworms, the band’s first release in five years, gives weight to this sentiment. Despite being a dutiful continuation of The Shins’ traditional style, the album spins an inevitable nostalgia—no doubt a result of frontman James Mercer’s age (he’s 46)—into a feat of ingenuity.
Besides a short stylistic detour with their second album, Chutes Too Narrow (2003), the Shins have strayed little from their debut sound. Some fans may be longing for a shakeup, but Heartworms is a convincing case for the band’s musical conservatism. While Mercer briefly attempts to innovate on the first tracks of the album, he takes the experimental a bit too far. During those few regrettable minutes, the album feels regressive in its lack of restraint.
The song “Cherry Hearts,” for instance, is heavy-handed with synths, and these contrived beats distract from the other layers of the song. The same headache-inducing electronic muddlement appears in a few other early tracks, but instrumental clarity is restored towards the middle of the album.
It is impossible to remain frustrated with the album’s techno-saturation while indulging in Mercer’s retrospections. Heartworms takes an upward turn with “Mildenhall,” in which Mercer avoids the modern adornments found on the rest of the album. “Mildenhall” is a simple, acoustic recount of an adolescent Mercer’s move to England. On this track, he settles into the melancholic yet lighthearted mood that the Shins wear so well. It is dewy and heartwarming, telling the tale of his musical beginnings while showcasing Mercer’s subtle humor: “I thought my flattop was so new wave / Until it melted away in the Suffolk rain.”
Mercer gets sentimental on other tracks as well. In “Name for You,” he bestows fatherly wisdom, singing, “It’s a bland kind of torture / You’ve played the mother and wife / But what do you really dream of at night?”Although the lyrics might seem trite, the sincerity with which Mercer prods his teenage daughters towards contemplation make the song not just endurable but endearing.
The Shins succeed when their percussive melodies are allowed to hoist Mercer’s wispy vocals without excessive electronic interference or emotional calculation—in other words, when they don’t try so hard. This is counterintuitive for Mercer, who sings about the matter in the song “Half a Million”: “And if I try hard/ I find something I can really drop into/ And everything that was is just a thing that I can sing.”
The final track on Heartworms,“The Fear,” is the highlight of the album. The song shows the band’s charming ability to strike a balance between seriousness and breeziness. Mercer vulnerably broods over his experience with anxiety while simultaneously imbuing a sense of hopefulness through an upbeat tempo; this emotional yin and yang makes a calming insinuation of the transience of life.
Although Heartworms is not a post-hiatus reinvention of the band, it by no means feels stale—in fact, quite the contrary. It moves along the well-established arch of the Shins’ discography, repurposing the familiar while preserving the band’s winning essence. Minor setbacks aside, listening to Heartworms is like coming home after a long, tiresome trip. After the Shins’ five-year absence, it is an immense comfort to stumble back into Mercer’s vocal embrace and hear him fuse past heartache with promise for the future.