Album Review: The Shins – The Worms Heart

For me the fascinating thing about The Worms Heart is not its concept, or even the music within, but it’s trying to figure out exactly when James Mercer came up with the wheeze of re-recording The Shins’ previous album, ensuring that each new version of every song had a tone which contrasted the original version on Heartworms.

Did Mercer come up with this idea when he was recording Heartworms? When he was recording alternative versions of the songs for the B-sides of singles? While The Shins were on the road and rearranging the new songs to work better on the live stage? Its certainly an interesting idea, but whether that equates to The Worms Heart being an album which stands on its own merits is down to the taste of the individual listener.

Some will no doubt make accusations of laziness. After all, Mercer didn’t have to write a new set of lyrics for The Worms Heart. However, if Mercer did indeed come up with concept of this album while he was preparing Heartworms, surely it must have meant extra effort to ensure that the lyrics would work with radically re-worked music. Whatever the case, having listened to both albums individual and back to back in recent weeks, I’m happy to report that I actually do prefer some of The Worms Heart versions, including, ironically enough, Heartworms’ title track. However, there are also times when you really do have to wonder of Mercer was just forcing an otherwise great song into a different arrangement because the idea behind The Worms Heart demanded it. “Mildenhall” was an unarguable highlight of the previous album, but here it is bludgeoned into submission by an unflattering heavy organ arrangement. It’s a shame, as when you first hear it, The Worms Heart version of “Mildenhall” really grabs your attention, but midway through, you just wan’t want someone to unplug the distorted organ.

Perhaps it is better to view Heartworms / A Worms Heart as two halves of a double album that just so happen to be released ten months apart. Maybe they were always intended as such. Who beside Mercer truly knows? At least being released as two separate entities means that we are now revisiting the previous album, and are perhaps listening to certain tracks a little more closely, where previously they might have not made as much of an impression. Hell, sometimes, both versions of the same song are belters (“Rubber Ballz” works surprisingly well as a laid back, almost summery number), but sometimes, you’ll just get what I will henceforth refer to as ‘The Mildenhall effect’.

Perhaps Mercer has just performed another masterstroke. He’s got us listening to his new release at the same time as we are re-assessing his last one. Does that mean that The Worms Heart stands up on its own though? Or does it only make sense if you are already familiar with Heartworms? You know something? I’m still not sure. Whatever the case, fans of The Shins can now be assured that any long slow evenings they had previously can now fly by, as they try to make up their minds which version of Heartworms / A Worms Heart they prefer, switching the contrasting songs back and forth on multiple playlists, in an amusingly time wasting attempt to better Mercer’s versions.

Yup, The Shins still confuse me.

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