Review: Heartworms (2017) by The Shins

I have no experience of The Shins beyond this album, I thought I should confess that. Normally, I’m in the opinion that you need to be aware of a band’s previous releases for context-reasons when writing a review… But at the same, a good album is a good album, right? And I think there’s something valuable in approaching some releases without having to trail through a sizeable discography before-hand. That’s what I’m doing with Heartworms.

So, onto the album itself; The Shins’ fifth release is a fun one, with tons of bouncy-sounding synths and distorted back-up vocals. The most popular tone on Heartworms is unabashedly goofy, as shown by tracks like ‘Name For You’ and ‘Cherry Hearts’. There’s a cartoonish vibe to the instrumentation and vocal delivery and at points it seeps into the lyrics as well: ‘You kissed me once / When we were drunk / It left me spinning on my heels’. With that last line in particular and it’s easy to imagine James Mercer as a cartoon character.

This style dominates most of the album and most of the tracks that adopt it work. ‘Name For You’ is probably my favourite track, featuring a catchy hook and some off-beat but fun instrumentation. Though I will admit that the song feels overstuffed at certain points, with its chirping bird sound effects and ‘wah wah’ backing vocals. And this overstuffed feel is common throughout the album. By the time Heartworms reaches its halfway point, the album’s eccentric weirdness begins to drag – especially on the songs ‘Rubber Ballz’ and ‘Half a Million’. At times it feels like the band are just filling their songs up with strange sounds – like high-pitch backing vocals – for the sake of it. And it gets annoying.

There are some more low-key songs here – ‘Fantasy Island’ and ‘Mildenhall’ in particular. On these songs, James Mercer turns the focus onto himself and the sparse instrumentation reflects this. ‘Mildenhall’, a song where Mercer sings about when he first got into music, there are hardly any instruments present other than an acoustic guitar. Its basicity makes for a nice break from the cluttered songs that fill out most of the album. The lyrics are a bit corny – as is Mercer’s delivery of them – but I can sort of forgive that.

There are a few other solid tracks towards the album’s end, such as ‘Dead Alive’, but to be honest, there’s nothing truly fantastic on Heartworms. If anything, I’d call it just fine. It delivers a few good songs but none that truly wowed me. I think I might dip into some of the band’s other work out of curiosity, but this album doesn’t paint them as much more than a middling indie band. This isn’t a bad album, but it isn’t a great one either; it just kind of is.

Essential Songs: ‘Name For You’, ‘Cherry Hearts’, ‘Mildenhall’.

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