Released 10th March via Columbia
“This is fun.” That’s what I thought when first listening to The Shins’ latest record. A quick browse of the internet will probably tell you the same. But, what does fun mean in the context of music? After some thought I realised that what fun means here is busy production, catchy melodies and a cool, steady rhythm. Heartworms will be an endearing return for The Shins’ biggest fans but a forgettable, if pleasant, one for the more casual listener.
The album starts strong with lead single ‘Name For You’, a summery song with a bouncing bassline. Band leader (and effectively the only member) James Mercer can no doubt write a decent and catchy song. This is confirmed by the next two tracks, ‘Painting a Hole’ and ‘Cherry Hearts’. The latter could easily have been taken from Animal Collective’s last record, with an uncomplicated and easily-enjoyable song structure that they often lack. Flowing into one another, the album starts with a good pace and mixture of sounds.
However, after these songs, the production seems to dampen the album’s initially-bright mood. It’s unusual for me to fault an album on its use of dense instrumentation, but there are right and wrong ways to use it. Reverb added to most tracks turns dense instrumentation into a muddy, lifeless distraction. It’s disappointing, as there are some really nice guitar phrases and interesting synth pads, but it’s all lost into a pool of echo and reverb. A fun album is much less fun when you have to work to listen to it.
All this is countered by measured guitar, bass, drums and song writing. James Mercer’s voice rises above the muddied production on every song: an impressive, bittersweet tenor, it’s his sharp delivery that really makes you follow the album start to finish. Beach Boy-style multitracked harmonies complement choruses, and drums emphasise certain lyrics like punctuation.
The lyrics are also worth emphasising. Though in 44 minutes Mercer doesn’t unpack anything too deep, he does have a knack for succinctly describing a detailed scene. Simple phrases with the right delivery, “I just can’t get her out my bed”, really give something for the listener to sing along to.
The album is at its best when settling to deliver formulaic pop-rock. The guitars are good. The bass is good. The drums are good. Listening to ‘Half a Million’ you would be forgiven for thinking you’re listening to The Strokes. But tracks like ‘The Fear’ and ‘Heartworms’ lack the strong melody needed to keep your head above the heavy production.
It’s a shame to hear such good songwriting affected by production. Perhaps had Mercer decided to use an external producer, rather than do it all himself, this album would have had the cleaner crisp sound needed to bring these songs to form.