After taking a glance at recent publicity photos, James Mercer looks burdened. And The Shins look the same, but different. The focus is still on the guy who slightly resembles Kevin Spacey. But gone are the rest of The Usual Suspects. It’s been close to a decade since Mercer told the original cast members that they were being edited out, including hammy keyboardist Martin Crandall, usually the one having the most fun in the early day promos. Pop music often shows itself to be more akin with iron-fisted tyranny than peacetime democracy; but still, a true coup is still hard to do — remember it was Brian Wilson, not Mike Love, that faded into the background. Shit, the guy in Dexy’s Midnight Runners fired everyone, twice.
Heartworms is the fifth Shins album, but the second since the split. To say it sounds more or less the same as other Shins albums is both a compliment and a slight critique. Why monkey with someone’s 401k if you’re just gonna replicate their sound once in the studio? But then again, I’ve never fronted a band.
Starting with the freewheelin’ “Name For You,” the opening track is off-kilter like an 80s Jonathan Demme movie, playing loosey-goosey with the melodic line, punctuated with doo wop-styled “blah, blah, blahs.” The song is apparently an ode to Mercer’s young daughters, and young daughters everywhere. “Somebody with an antique notion / Comes along to tighten the line / They’re just afraid of you speaking your mind.” The song bounces like a balloon tied to a chair, desperately wanting to fly. Mercer has never been afraid to push the boundaries of his own songs, as most teeter before he finally ropes them back in. We get a sense that it’s fun for him. Take note, Rivers Cuomo.
Another key track, “Fantasy Island,” has Mercer looking through his back pages, a rerun of past regrets. “I’ve always had something to hide / My skinny arms, evil intentions / And back at school, hitting the fire alarms / Desperately wanting attention.” With its doubled vocals and plucking synths, this could easily sit as a B-side to one of John Lennon’s last handful of tunes.
Mercer continues the trip down melancholy lane with “Mildenhall”; a simple strummer about first rock shows and swigs of cheap beer (“Stared messing with dad’s guitar / Taught me some chords just to start me off”). Conversational in tone, Mercer reminds that The Shins are, and always have been, his band.
“Rubber Ballz” tells the story of a misguided Lothario who wishes he had porked his mistress’ sister, and now he can’t get her out of his bed. “Painting a Hole” sports some residue of Mercer’s collaboration with Danger Mouse, Broken Bells. It’s groovy heavy with Mercer stretching the vocals like he’s conducting a tent revival (which is impressive for somebody who suffers crippling anxiety).
That social disorder is brought up in the final track. Playing to his strongest Ian McCulloch influence, with its busy percussions and violins, “The Fear” is a perfect stranded-on-an-island song, which is exactly how Mercer feels. He laments feeling so scared “of all the stupid things.”
Now backed by hired guns, Mercer has taken full control of the band that was once predicted to “change your life” — a distinction that has sort of plagued The Shins from the start. It was an unfair label, as few bands can actually do that. The Beatles could, naturally. And Hootie & the Blowfish once had a real hold on freshmen. Even if Mercer never ends up creating his Pet Sounds, he seems to be settling nicely into his Sunflower years.
Mike Postalakis (@mikepostalakis) is a writer, director and comedian living in Los Angeles. He doesn’t have a Netflix, Hulu, Amazon or HBO Go account. Instead, he spends his extra money at the Gap.