HEARTWORMS by The Shins
Genre: Indie Rock
Favorite tracks: “Name For You,” “Painting a Hole,” “Fantasy Island,” “Rubber Ballz,” “So Now What,” “The Fear”
About a month ago, Dirty Projectors’ David Longstreth and Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes engaged in the old “rock is dead” discourse. They questioned the fertility of post-2009 indie rock, and whether the genre’s label holds any weight beyond being an “expired paradigm.” The dialogue received a little bit of backlash based on suppositions of pretentiousness and highfalutin bantering, even despite their more positive conclusion that music will always be an ebb and flow of tradition and novelty parallel to the human experience. However, it seems a bit narrow to pass off the validity of their questions when the nature of art-making is creation—generating newness, whether it be uniqueness in content, or simply by virtue of producing something that didn’t exist prior to its fruition. I, too, find myself wondering why so much indie rock sounds the same, and the superficial side of me fears that artists in that realm have nowhere to go without beginning to change their sound completely or “selling out” to follow current pop trends in electronica and hip hop.
In the decade between Neutral Milk Hotel’s IN THE AEROPLANE OVER THE SEA and Grizzly Bear’s VECKATIMEST, The Shins can rightfully be included as a definitive band of the indie rock noughts (lest you forget that Natalie Portman told you “New Slang” would change your life in Zach Braff’s GARDEN STATE). With three highly acclaimed albums released in that timespan, frontman James Mercer sowed his own seed of grain when amalgamating folk, psychedelic rock, and lyrics that ruminate on the human condition. After outgrowing that identity and subsequently shedding his original backing band, it sounded as if Mercer ran out of things to say through his old channels, and so settled on unchallenging pop instincts to release 2012’s PORT OF MORROW. What could he learn to share following that clumsy sonic shift?
Luckily, HEARTWORMS delivers where its prequel could not. Instead of marrying indie rock codifications (per Longstreth’s hermeneutical qualms), it courts the sounds of the band’s first three albums, while still flirting with Mercer’s own personal maturation and the pop sensibilities of his fourth. What makes HEARTWORMS stand on its own amidst The Shins’ portfolio is its bright and colorful sound as the host for the album’s parasitic namesake. The way Mercer expresses anxiety (which I assume to be the symbolism of a heartworm) on this release gives credence to the “personal universal” that Longstreth and Pecknold concluded in their debate: everybody experiences it, but every single manifestation creates a new version of that experience on account of it being demonstrated by an individuated agent.
This is a conveniently appropriate conceit for album opener “Name For You,” an ode to his daughters that empowers them to take the world into their own hands and speak their minds despite the misogynistic labels society will demarcate to them. There are, and have been, a lot of women in this world, but they each represent their own personal expression of womanhood. To this, he simply and rhetorically asks, “What’s in a name?” An uplifting sentiment for the anxieties of paternity, to say the least, but sneakily masked with surf pop and cowbell.
It’s with this same musical jubilance that Mercer navigates what follows, although it has little to do with the cynicism, death, or economics of lyrics past. In fact, the sweetness of the opening track is misleading next to “Rubber Ballz,” in which the narrator finds himself drunkenly, regretfully, and breathlessly addicted to a woman who is bad for him. With the lyric, “My vices have voted, her ass duly-noted / Can’t get her out of my bed,” Mercer is at his most shallow, but that damn chorus is more of an earworm than a heartworm (yes! A very bad joke!). Sandwiched between some syncopated ba-da’s and a melody line a la The Beach Boys (to whom The Shins have often been likened), the song reminds me of my father’s stories as a Lothario in 1960s Santa Monica. Musically, it makes sense rebooting into the next track, “Half a Million,” which confidently pounds on the keys like Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock,” but this time backed by some synth and a declaration that Mercer’s guitar is his most powerful coping mechanism.
The lyrics aren’t always his most poetic, but Mercer does redeem himself with tracks that critique dogmatism (“Painting a Hole”) and suggest the bane of reminiscence (“Dead Alive”); in fact, some of the most special moments on HEARTWORMS are when he’s storytelling from his youth as a kid from a transient army family. In the style of Merle Haggard, he gives a folksy acoustic pluck on “Mildenhall” about his flattop melting away in the English rain and a cassette tape of The Jesus and Mary Chain. Even more endearing is the ballad “Fantasy Island,” on which Mercer dreams of escaping from the anxiety he felt moving from Germany to New Mexico in his adolescence amidst lush blankets of synthesizers and echoing vocals. It’s little lines like, “I’ve always had something to hide / My skinny arms, my evil intentions” that help me forgive lyrical snafus about hitting rewind, “on somebody’s magic bong” (“The Fear”) and a one-sided love that turns into, “the saddest dream that ever came true” (“Heartworms”).
Where the lyrics fail, songs are redeemed by catchy hooks, playful melodies, and intimations of The Shins’ stylistic roots. The psychedelia of “Painting a Hole” would make it pass as a track from WINCING THE NIGHT AWAY, whereas the nihilism of “Dead Alive” nods both to OH, INVERTED WORLD and Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger.” The ballad “So Now What,” though originally commissioned for über-fan Zach Braff’s latest film, vibes like “It’s Only Life” from PORT OF MORROW in its emotional acquiescence and misty legato. The greatest stylistic betrayal happens on “Cherry Hearts,” which bounces and reverbs like an electronic slinky before bursting into a chorus of inebriated hyper-infatuation. But still, the album closes with a track that could comfortably play over the credits of a sleepy Western film—replete with rim kicks, violins, and harmonium, the lamentation, “This fear is a terrible drug / If I only had sense enough / To let it give way to love” feels as heavy as a hot sunset on a black saddle. In that moment, I am brought back to Longstreth’s verdict: “. . .it seems like human experience/nature has a way of staying constant: for this, we [sic] don’t need music that changes all the time.” In fact, change can be a crippling scare. Might it be safe to say now that the comfort in familiarity holds a significant value next to the avant garde?
HEARTWORMS delivers a pop-rock sheen over the band’s softer, indie origins, as if it were a combination of the last four albums. It’s not perfect, and The Shins have never been known for experimentation, but they nurture an indie nostalgia that respects its (so-called) prime and reworks its customary patterns into an upbeat fantasia. If you’re not a fan of their past work, then there isn’t much for you to glean from HEARTWORMS—Mercer himself admitted his effort to “use the palette that [he has] historically used for the band.” But the joy of the album is especially radiant for the fact of what Pecknold ended up insisting to Longstreth in their discussion. The Shins stay loyal to their indie rock provenance; the freshness comes from sharing Mercer’s thoughts and stories through this conduit. One of the greatest gifts that music can give to us is letting us experience a new feeling—created by the artist—by proxy. It need not be neoteric, it need only to be an honest expression despite the consistency of human nature. Longstreth would agree: “. . .[F]or this, tradition is valuable.”