Review Summary: The disease of more.
The Shins have come a long way since changing your life with an acoustic guitar and some tinny drums, a fact that’s quickly driven into one’s skull in the first half of Heartworms
. Running the gamut from space-age chamber pop to Broken Bells-esque psychedelia to relaxed alt-country, the group’s first record since 2012’s Port of Morrow
and fifth overall is their most expansive record yet. It’s the sound of a band confident in their ability to stretch the limits of a well-worn sound and an expensive studio, content to indulge every little gee-whiz effect and track upon multilayered track. As the elder statesman of indie pop, James Mercer has earned his right to wiggle his toes in previously undisturbed waters, but too often on Heartworms
he sounds less like a genius gracefully growing old and more like Wayne Coyne in full mid-life crisis mode. It’s difficult to see the Mercer who made a song like “Saint Simon,” a carefully constructed clockwork of pop composition, allowing something like the cluttered, clattering “Painting a Hole” out of the recording room. The muscular songwriting that defines a Shins song is gussied up with so many effects and unnecessary technical claptrap here that the indelible hook driving a single like “Dead Alive” collapses instead of propelling forward, the victim of more synths, more ghostly harmonies, more carnival keys, more more
Frankly, Mercer’s unfiltered production makes Heartworms
an exhausting listen. Maybe it’s because the Shins have a relatively small discography, despite having been around seemingly forever, that every new release sounds like a jarring readjustment to what’s come before. Or perhaps it’s the failure of anybody to say “no” in the studio. Mercer produced every song here except late highlight “So Now What,” a standout likely because its relatively restrained production finally allows a stirring anthem to breathe and because it has been floating around since it was featured on a 2014 Zach Braff (who else?) soundtrack and consequently feels divorced from everything else. Mercer’s everything-and-the-kitchen-sink ethos is exacerbated by the track listing, which places a murderer’s row of offenders – the incoherent “Painting a Hole,” the self-consciously weird “Cherry Hearts,” the overstuffed if well-intentioned “Name for You” – at the beginning. “Fantasy Islands,” a similarly widescreen epic, is more tolerable, if only because its instrumental forays feel earned and its heartbreaking lyrics seem authentic rather than canned.
That tendency to dip into cliché is at fault here too; where the subdued Americana of “Mildenhall” starts by painting a refreshingly honest portrait of Mercer’s teenage years overseas as a military brat, it settles on one too many trite turns of phrase. “Name for You,” a paean to Mercer’s daughters, is the kind of progressive potshot at the patriarchy that almost makes up for the crowded production, but it’s a red herring for the rest of Heartworms
. Instead, Mercer is content to hew close to his most experienced subjects, lamely lamenting unrequited love in the title track and tackling obsession in the winking “Rubber Ballz.” “I take the drugs but the drugs won’t take,” he sings in the bouncy new wave of “Half a Million,” a turn of phrase that feels written more for its cleverness than for any particular import, like too many here. One of the best songs, closer “The Fear,” is perhaps the only one that successfully straddles the line between the flowery production and Mercer’s more introspective lyrics. It’s overwrought, certainly, but whether it’s the almost funereal pace, the soothing, warm melody, or Mercer’s narrative of anxiety problems, the combination is something of a perfect alchemy, the apex of the album’s desire to stretch the Shins further than anything they’ve done before. Sadly, it comes too late to make Heartworms
any more than a brightly colored mess.