21 Mar 2017

Heartworms by The Shins

From The Sampler, 7:30 pm on 21 March 2017
James Mercer of The Shins

James Mercer of The Shins Photo: Marisa Kula

Nick Bollinger discusses a variety of pop The Shins call ‘heartworms’.

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‘Earworm’ is a phrase, coined for those pieces of music that worm their way into your brain – via the auditory canal – and stay there, for better or worse. So what would a heartworm be?

Heartworms is the title of the new Shins album, the implication being that these songs make their way into your memory via the heart. I’ll come back to matters of the heart, but first - how memorable are these worms?

‘Name For You’ opens Heartworms, and with one of those endlessly upwardly spiralling melodies for which chief Shin James Mercer is renowned, some Beach Boys-style ‘bup-bup-ba’s in the chorus and handclaps for good measure, it’s hook upon hook and if one doesn’t catch you the next one is bound to. Listening to it the first time, I thought there might be too much going on to remember anything, but sure enough I was humming that chorus an hour later. And one big pop confection is followed by another.

Heartworms is the fifth Shins album, and the first in five years. Their 2012 set Port Of Morrow followed the breakup of the original band, and as with that album, the so-called group here is really just Mercer with reinforcements. This time he’s even produced the album himself, and he clearly knows what he wants. It’s richly textured, combining the guitar pop of the group’s early albums with the more manipulated sounds of the two albums Mercer made as Broken Bells with producer-auteur Danger Mouse.

It’s a rich, fruity, Christmas pudding of a pop record, reminding me of a whole range of artists who, in different periods, have taken up the challenge of making catchy tunes into an art form. In its glossiest, most American moments, I think of The Cars; at its most edgy and eccentric, XTC. But this whole school of pop can be traced back to the 60s and those monumentally influential records of The Beatles and Beach Boys. And I’m reminded of both at once in a song like ‘Rubber Ballz’.

So, heartworms? There may be tunes to fall in love with here, but Mercer doesn’t write a lot of love songs. More typical is the somewhat anti-romantic sentiment of ‘Rubber Ballz’, about a girl he can’t get out of his bed. And if there are personal stories behind these songs, he’s primarily a popsmith who will exploit anything for a good rhyme. Word-worms, you might call them.

This album doesn’t deconstruct pop, or slam it up against hip-hop in the way the latest Dirty Projectors album does. Nor does it simply recreate classic styles without pushing them forward – like, say, the recent Ryan Adams album. James Mercer is just a person who believes there are still great pop songs that haven’t already been written, and with Heartworms he proves it.

Songs featured: Name For You, Painting A Hole, Cherry Hearts, Rubber Ballz, Mildehal, Heartworms.

Heartworms is available on Universal.

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