Label: Columbia Records
Producer: James Mercer
Genre: Indie Rock
Rating: 4 / 5
Complete artistic freedom among musicians is a rarity these days. In an industry dominated by the bottom line and driving record sales, a lot of great music gets lost in the shuffle. We’ve reached an age where artistic integrity takes a back seat to the demands of the consumer. This results in watered-down, similar-sounding mediocrity that holds the medium at a standstill.
Artists are rarely content with creating art for art’s sake. One genre of music I have always considered to be an exception to this is indie rock, filling a niche for people who want to hear genuine music created by people with true passion for what they are doing. Although some indie rock bands do strike deals with larger record labels, the artists are still given a lot of freedom to do what they feel is best on their projects.
One of indie rock’s most popular bands, The Shins, a group that once dominated the genre throughout the 2000s, has undergone quite a few changes over the past decade. Back in 2008, frontman of the group James Mercer decided to part ways with the three other founding members of the band, stating it was an “aesthetic decision,” and effectively turning The Shins into Mercer’s solo project. With a new band accompanying him, many had concerns about the future of The Shins, but Mercer has proven he can do it on his own, both with past projects and with his latest album “Heartworms.”
“Heartworms” is the fifth studio album by The Shins, the follow up to “Port of Morrow” (2012), and the second album for the group on Columbia Records. It is also the first album frontman James Mercer has produced by himself since the band’s 2001 debut album, “Oh, Inverted World.”
“Heartworms” takes elements from past Shins albums, balancing the enigmatic lyricism of Mercer with his addictive melodies, evoking both sweet and bittersweet emotions along the way. “Heartworms” adds new elements as well. Mercer, inspired by his work with Danger Mouse in their side project, Broken Bells, uses a lot of synth sounds, as well as violins. All these pieces together make for unique sounding arrangements that lets “Heartworms” stand out in The Shins’ discography.
Much like past albums from the group, “Heartworms” doesn’t revolve around one central theme. Instead, each song has its own self-contained idea or question it explores.
Opening up the album is the track, “Name for You,” an upbeat tune that challenges society’s treatment of women and the labels people like to put on them. Inspired by and written for Mercer’s three daughters, it describes the pressures and challenges women have to face on a day-to-day basis. The chorus makes a reference to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with the repeating line “What’s in a name?” which is essentially saying that whatever society labels women as, that isn’t necessarily what they have to be.
“I had been thinking about femininity and what it means to be a women in society and I guess I just wanted to speak to them [Mercer’s daughters] and I want them to have a life where they feel powerful and comfortable and confident,” said Mercer in an interview with 7.30, an Australian news program.
“Mildenhall” focuses on Mercer’s childhood and how he went from growing up in a military family in Albuquerque, New Mexico to the lead singer of an indie rock band. Carrying an older country western vibe to it, “Mildenhall” has Mercer working his lower register while a steady rhythm and relaxing acoustic guitar flow throughout the song. Although it differs significantly from what Mercer usually writes, it works well here and is a nice nod to the old country and folk music Mercer used to listen to with his father.
“The Fear,” the closing track of Heartworms, has both a feeling of melancholy and hope sprinkled throughout. Inspired by Mercer’s own life and his struggle with debilitating thoughts, the song is about anxiety and how if someone’s not careful they can waste their life by worrying too much.
Other tracks on the album explore concepts like the humor of modern relationships, living life to it’s fullest, and loving someone who doesn’t feel the same way. Mercer’s songwriting is as brilliant as ever; his use of cryptic lyrics leaves a lot of the meanings to his songs up to interpretation. One listener may find a different meaning within a song than someone else.
While “Heartworms” is a solid album, it doesn’t do anything particularly transcendent to the genre or even for the Shins. It’s a fun, well thought out album with some cool new elements, but it doesn’t quite have the same magic of past records like “Oh, Inverted World” and “Chutes too Narrow” that made the band really stand out in the early 2000s.
Though the days of The Shins creating groundbreaking music may be over, it’s still great to see something auteur driven in the year 2017. James Mercer has proven yet again that he can still craft captivating melodies and arrangements that will stick around in your head long after your first listen.
Review by Joshua Stickrod