Still tugging on those heart strings
‘Heartworms’ feels like a pretty accurate way to describe a collection of Shins songs: sweet, indie-folk numbers that burrow inside you, find their way to your vital organ and prod it until teenage levels of emotion are emitted.
Many a pop culture moment has documented this emotional response to the band. We watched Gilmore Girl, Rory, dance awkwardly to The Shins during her first ever spring break. We believed Natalie Portman when she told Zach Braff that their song ‘New Slang’ would “change your life” in Garden State, and we heard The OC’s Seth Cohen hail them – along with his beloved Death Cab For Cutie – as being one of the best bands of the noughties.
But that was pushing 15 years ago, and stuff’s changed, not least the band. It’s been five years since a Shins album and frontman James Mercer is now a 46-year-old father of three, and the only original Shin left. He’s embraced solo life, writing fifth album ‘Heartworms’ on his own, and producing everything himself for the first time since their glorious 2001 debut, ‘Oh Inverted World’.
Last record, 2012’s ‘Port of Morrow’, got people wondering if they’d lost a little of their folk-pop charm. It was polished, less heart-tuggy. Was it gone forever? Were they past it? Nuh-uh. ‘Heartworms’ opener ‘Name for You’ – a feminist ode to Mercer’s three daughters – is a reminder of the king-Shin’s distinctive voice and ability to write a beautiful melody. The Shins of old are all over ‘Dead Alive’ – a haunting tale of small town life with hooks reminiscent of their 2003 ‘Chutes Too Narrow’ best.
Another gem is ‘Mildenhall’, a country song at its core, which opens with the crackle of vinyl and tells tales of Mercer’s childhood in Suffolk. The star of the show, though, is the title track, which reels you in with lines like “No easy way around it / you’re the saddest dream that ever came true”. Insert heartbreak emoji here. ‘Painting A Hole’ is an odd psych-rock moment that feels altogether out of place on a Shins album, but that’s okay.
The Shins in 2017 possibly aren’t life changing, but overall Mercer’s songwriting creds are well in tact.