Heartworms is a sonic course correction from 2012's Port of Morrow, but the songwriting is still spotty, so it's simply too little, too late.
When you’re a mid-level indie rock band in the 21st century, taking five years between albums seems like a risky proposition. On the one hand, your name will probably fade from public consciousness (so you'll have to spend some time reconnecting with your fans), but on the other, it’s not long enough to truly trigger excitement and nostalgia (as in, “Wow! The Shins are getting back together! We gotta go to the show!!”). As a result, your group gets stuck in this middle ground, and your new album will likely inspire a lot of shrugs before anybody even hears it.
Shins leader James Mercer is now facing this issue -- albeit compounded a little. It’s been ten years since the now sextet's third album, Wincing the Night Away, brought them measured praise following their critically adored first two albums. Afterward, there was a five-year gap leading up to 2012’s Port of Morrow, which also carried the baggage of Mercer unceremoniously firing the other three members of the band and declaring that he alone was responsible for their entire catalog. Fortunately, the Shins carried on successfully as a touring entity (with new musicians, of course) even though Morrow’s reception was decidedly mixed. Aside from that drama and any resulting curiosity, though, the five years it took for Heartworms to emerge seems like an awfully long time.
So, is Heartworms good enough to make all those lapsed Shins fans from the early and mid-2000s sit up and pay attention again? Nah, not really, but it's still pretty good at times. There are some songs here that can sit side by side with at least their second-tier material, if not their best work. For instance, opener “Name for You” is an upbeat song with a nice melody that lets Mercer’s voice soar into his upper range (where he sounds best). Also, there’s a cool syncopated guitar part running through the song, plus a couple of interludes with fluting and chirpy synths. It’s a fine starting point because it's very much in the mold of classic Shins songs. “Cherry Hearts”, on the other hand, answers the question, “What would the Shins sound like as a late ‘80s synthpop band?” His voice and melody are once again highly catchy and very much in line with what the band has always done; also, they provide a strong anchor for the synthy backing music, making te track a cool experiment.
The quiet and folky “Mildenhall” may be the most nakedly autobiographical song Mercer has ever written. It’s a story about moving to an RAF base in England with his military dad when he was 15, and it covers his love of skateboarding, how he started playing the guitar, and even his first exposure to the Jesus and Mary Chain. It’s easygoing, almost unadorned (there are subtle synth flourishes throughout), and probably the most instantly likable song on the album. In contrast, the power-pop of “Half a Million” is enjoyable for how successfully Mercer apes the Cars. There’s something to be said for just saying, “We’ve got these guitars / We’ve got these keyboards / And I have an ear for a catchy melody / Let’s go for it." His voice doesn’t quite have the punch of Ric Ocasek’s, and the music only manages about 85% of the Cars’ energy, but damn if he doesn’t get close.
“Rubber Ballz” and “Heartworms” round out the album’s successes. The former is relaxed, wistful, and sneakily catchy, with Mercer lamenting his choice of dating the wrong girl in the verses while cleverly upending pop lyric convention with the chorus (“I can’t get her out of my bed”). As for “Heartworms”, it's similarly relaxed. Stylistically, it could've come from any of the band’s first three albums because it boasts a triumphant chorus, during which Mercer yelps, “What can I do?” as the music swells beneath him.
Sadly, Heartworms also has some misses, such as “Painting a Hole”, a piece that rides its loping irregular beat and simple buzzing bassline into oblivion. It starts off cool and different, with an atypically heavier feel; however, Mercer doesn’t have a compelling melody to go with his rhythms. On that note, said rhythms Just. Keep. Going. Without a strong hook to temper it, the song grinds away at the listener’s patience. Elsewhere, “Fantasy Island” is slow and heavily synthy, which might work for three minutes, but not for nearly five. There's just not enough going on with it to hold the listener’s interest.
“Dead Alive” shuffles along relatively effectively, but it's another case of Mercer’s melody not being sticky enough to appeal. Plus, the way he stretches and slurs his words makes it difficult to pay attention to the lyrics. “So Now What” was prominently featured in the critically lambasted Zach Braff movie Wish I Was Here, where it worked. Here, it sort of just sits near the end of the album, not standing out but also not being unpleasant. As for album closer “The Fear”, it immediately turns into background music. Mercer sings about his fears of either growing old or his wife's dementia. Honestly, it 's hard to tell, but at least he admits up front, “I feel fear / Of all the stupid things a man could feel”. The song rambles on for five and a half minutes with a folky string section and accordion accompaniment. By the end, it fails to make any impression, so it's not a good way to end.
There is a sense of course correction on Heartworms when compared to the relatively experimental Port of Morrow. Mercer continues to use a lot more synth sounds than in the band’s early days, but he's also trying to achieve his traditional songwriting specialties. The thing is, a course correction that takes five years seems a bit late; the other thing is, it’s kind of hard to make a case for sonically rectifying some mistakes when the songwriting itself is only up to snuff about half of the time. Heartworms has some songs that longtime Shins fans will appreciate, and they should seek out those songs. But in the age of unlimited audio streaming, it is hard to make a case that the entire album is worth their time.