The Shins Heartworms Columbia
“I started messing with my Dad’s guitar/ He taught me some chords just to start me off/ Whittling away on those rainy days/ And that’s how we get to where we are now.”
It’s not surprising that James Mercer’s musical origin story is far from scandalous. New song Mildenhall tells the tale of an indie musician who attributes his success to “cheap beer and rock ‘n’ roll” and a classmate’s loan of a Jesus and Mary Chain record. It’s hardly ripe for a salacious biopic, but for The Shins’ fifth record, Heartworms, Mercer has chosen to walk us through his adolescent memories. Whatever it is he’s looking for, it’s hard for us to find.
It’s been 16 years since The Shins’ debut Oh, Inverted World became code for a specific kind of quirky indie intellectualism, and thirteen years since the band’s cult success grew world-wide after Zach Braff’s Garden State (2004) urged: “You gotta hear this one song; they’ll change your life, I swear.” But since an “aesthetic” shake-up in 2009 left Mercer as the last original member standing, he’s taken pains to emphasise that he’s running the show.
The first record Mercer’s produced singlehandedly since 2001, Heartworms distances itself assertively from his work with Danger Mouse as Broken Bells, and perhaps from 2012’s off-the-boil Shins album Port of Morrow too. Special effects and studiously flamboyant vocals result in surrealist, cartoon pop that’s stuck in the adolescent. “I’ve never done time/ But I’ve done the crime/ Of wanting/ Something that could never stay,” Mercer scrawls in his diary on Cherry Hearts. Ticking all the boxes of an “adorkable” rom-com, Fantasy Island embellishes: “Hitting the fire alarms desperately wanting attention, I was just a boy/ Out there on my own/ Wishing I could fly.”
Turning his memories into just another teen movie, Heartworms can’t shake the weight of Mercer’s own expectations – as, deep down, he might have suspected all along. “I took a pledge to grow up,” he admits on Half a Million, “I’m just too lazy to make amends… That’s why the pattern still remains.”