by Preston Radtke
After five years of nomadic wandering in near irrelevance, The Shins surprisingly dropped an album. Heartworms is the fifth studio album by the New Mexico-based entity, following up 2012’s critically-acclaimed Port of Morrow. From the very beginning of the Shins, through all of their EP’s and LP’s, they strayed and scurried between three or four different somewhat-related genres within all of their albums. There’s the lo-fi indie-infused “New Slang” off of Oh, Inverted World, the fifties/sixties linked “Phantom Limb” from Wincing the Night Away, and the alt-pop classic “Simple Song” off of their 2012 release. But for the first time in their twenty-one year existence, the Shins may have strayed too far and too late. Heartworms dabbles in traditional Shins genres such as surf rock, indie rock, and traditional alternative rock. However, tracks like “Painting a Hole” and “Name for You” find the Shins crashing into the territory that is indie dance pop with confusing results. Unfortunately for the Shins, lead singer James Mercer still maintains his folk-leaning lyrical structures and delivery even on these new, beat-infused works. Furthermore, songs like “Cherry Hearts” and “Fantasy Island” see the Shins experimenting with some electronica and slight psychedelia. All of these stumbled-in-to-genre experiments all build to a singular question throughout the entire album: Is the rotating ensemble of bandmates and writers finally taking its toll on the Shins and rendering their music confused and misguided?
Vocals (Oh, to be young again):
This section will unsurprisingly center mostly on James Mercer. James Mercer’s light, care-free vocal delivery has won many hearts within the alternative and indie scene. Sadly though, Mercer’s voice comes across as much older and weathered on this album. He sings much lower, lower than even some of his low points on other albums, and he takes very few risks regarding high notes. The high notes he does attempt however, appear to be significantly diluted through use of generous reverb and vocoder. A prime example is “dead Alive”, a somewhat trippy experience hinting at folk rock, surf rock, and psychedelia. Mercer’s voice in this song is extremely distorted and echoey. When he goes up a few octaves, his voice takes on a more distant, and mystical sound. Aesthetically pleasing as this may be, this only furthers the idea that Mercer’s range has decreased noticeably from previous years. Frankly though, lots of reverberated vocals aren’t a bad thing, except the Shins do it so often on the previously mentioned “Dead Alive” and the title track, that the audience may get annoyed and disconnected from Mercer’s actual voice and consequently, the music as a whole.
There are vocal highlights on this album though. “Mildenhall”, the second single off the album, features beautiful imagery and pacing reminiscent of “New Slang” and other folksy Shins works from the past. The song “Half a Million” is an outstanding, hard-hitting dance ballad with perfect mixing and vocalizations by Mercer. The track prominently features the melodic randomness that the Shins have thrilled with before. The vocal patterns paired with the simple drum beat coexist to form not only the best dance track but one of the best songs off the album. “Half a Million” should have been the template for the Shins on their other dance-infused tracks. Instead, they focused more on beats and instrumentals and less on actual melody and vocalizations. When listening to this song, one thinks that Mercer wrote the lyrics, then crafted the beats around the structure and let them fill-in the vocal gaps in the piece.
Production: A New Kind of Anti-Folk
The majority of the tracks off Heartworms carry an unpleasant, almost too-perfect production standard that at times distracts from the actual songs. Save “Mildenhall” and “Half a Million”, all of the drum sections, guitar interplays, and synthes are just so clean and sleek sounding that they basically operate independent from Mercer’s vocals. The title track and “Name for You” feature overly produced instrumentals that nearly overwhelm Mercer’s folk-leaning lyrics. Furthermore, Mercer’s lyrics and delivery are not congruent with the production style and delivery of the instrumentals. The drums, guitars, and synths remind one of a slightly generic sounding pop rock work, whereas Mercer’s lyrics conjure up thoughts of surf rock, and mainstream folk rock. Other times on the record the mixer increased the relevance and dominance of Mercer’s voice to both overtake the odd instrumentation and to enhance his overall vocal reception. Admittedly, this does sound good, but it also furthers the divide between Mercer the artist, and Mercer the robot. The effect makes Mercer’s voice sound so much louder and more prominent than any backing instruments. With this increased comparative volume also comes increased echo and atmospheric constructs that allow his low-range voice to be hidden and distorted. No matter how much reverb and volume mixing, Mercer’s voice still lacks the range that it once had.
The State of the Shins (Is there a new Port?):
The Shins have thrived on randomness and kitschy quirk throughout their existence. Never taking things too seriously, the Shins have done numerous surprise shows, dropped singles after years of silence, and changed lineups rather cacophonously. That being said, one begins to wonder what the next steps could be for the Shins. This album was released five years after Port of Morrow, a fact that hints at irrelevance, desperation, and aimlessness. Why would a band release the lead single off of their new album nearly a year before the release date? Why would a band so late in their career try to near-drastically change their sound? Finally why would a well-established band with a reputation to uphold employ bandmates that virtually no one in the rock world knows of? In listening to this record, it almost feels as though this is Mercer’s big way of trying to show the music industry that his supposed single-handed dismantlement of the band in 2009 and all star lineup in 2012 was justified; as if they were all leading to this work. Unfortunately, this work doesn’t live up to the standards and expectations set forth by previous Shins releases. In the end, Heartworms is a solid enough pop idea, performed by a man trying to change things up too late in his career.
“Half a Million”
Also in the Heartworms Family:
Band of Horses: Why Are You OK
Yeasayer: Amen & Goodbye
Deerhunter: Fading Frontier
All Images From: Billboard
The vocals on this album will receive a weak 4. There are glimpses of vintage Shins, but overall the structure and delivery falls severely short for the sub-genres that Mercer is attempting to emulate.
Unfortunately, the production will also receive a low score. The fact that the instrumentation was distracting, the vocals were not paired well, and that the mixing was just so tidy and clean leave me no option but to give an honest three for production.
Giving a score for “the state of” may seem unfair. Often times we as the audience don’t truly know what’s going on within our favorite bands. However, for the past fifteen years the Shins have constantly put forth a mood of playful randomness resulting in slight experimentation and sporadic releases. But the noise that surrounds the Shins today is so hard to ignore from an evaluation standpoint. In my listening, many times I kept thinking, “Okay, this album isn’t so great, is their going to be a next one?” One would think that their migration from Subpop to Columbia in 2012 would have allowed for more transparency, and content, but alas.
Ryan is a Music Media Production major who wrote the first ever Byte music review and has been involved with nearly every other section at some point. He is also an event planner at Village Green Records and the primary booking coordinator for the store’s outdoor concerts.