The Shins confuse me. Heartworms is the fifth album by a band that was effectively a side project of a band which only released one album. In the past initial listens to their albums have left me disorientated, confused and of the opinion that they had ‘lost it’, only for the album of theirs that left me despairing at their seemingly terminal decline, to eventually reveal itself to actually be my favourite of all their albums. Then James Mercer, he of the unique and utterly compelling voice and smart lyrics, ditched the rest of The Shins to record Port of Morrow, an album I initially balked at even listening to, only for it to prove itself to be a great album after the now expected familiarisation period of several months. It now seems that The Shins are now James Mercer, plus a rotating cast of supporting musicians. Just like E and The Eels. Just Like Neil Hannon and The Divine Comedy. You know, those guys who have quietly written some of the best pop music of the last quarter of a century…
Things is, it’s getting to the point as if James Mercer is now taking joy in trying to convince me that a new album like Heartworms is going to be rubbish. The artwork alone looks like a page from one of those adult colouring books as attempted by an enthusiastic but under-talented soul. It’s ugly, almost as if it has been purposefully designed to put off fair-weather fans. Then you actually play the album, and it opens with a wonderful slice of indie-pop on “Name For You”, and all it quickly becomes apparent that all is well. Yes, initial listens can lead you to the conclusion that Heartworms is a little uneven, but to be honest, I’m pretty much through with trying to second-guess James Mercer, because frankly, he proved me wrong so many times now, that I’m not going to just keep making that same mistake.
Heartworms is The Shins doing what they do best, effervescing songcraft backed up by a grasp of brilliant pop dynamics. Yes, this is a different line up and there’s slightly (very slightly) more of an accessible pop fuzz about it, but the spirit remains true, and often, that’s half the battle. As long as Mercer can continue to write material as strong as this here on Heartworms, then he will always have an audience, regardless of anything else. Hell, a song like “Mildenhall” is pretty much worth the price of admission on its own.
Heartworms, like the last couple of albums baring The Shins name, is one that does reward regular listens, and I’m starting to suspect that that is by design rather than chance. As far as I am concerned, Mercer can pretty much follow wherever his muse leads him from here on in, because he has proven time and time again that whatever he does, there’s a fair chance that he’ll end up with something that I’ll find at worst listenable.