There’s SO MUCH music around these days. If there wasn’t then surely I’d listen to The Shins every damn day. As winning streaks go, for this reviewer’s unadulterated audio enjoyment anyway, ‘Oh, Inverted World’ followed by ‘Chutes Too Narrow’ followed by ‘Wincing the Night Away’ is one most groups would surely kill for. Whilst, perhaps, expecting ‘Port of Morrow’ to compete with what preceded it was asking too much, it’s still a more than respectable record.
2017 sees new release ‘Heartworms’ added to the band’s impressive discography. The Shins though – are they actually a band at all? Well generally it has appeared not, particularly in terms of where the ultimate responsibility for the crafting of the recorded musical output lies. The new album takes this trend to its natural conclusion with James Mercer named as sole producer (aside from ‘So Now What’ produced by former band member Richard Swift).
Mercer himself has apparently stated it was the experience of Swift taking over the helm for that one aforementioned song which made him fully realize he wanted to do the rest of the album himself, and, apparently, this involved investing in his own equipment such as compressors and microphones and trying to educate himself more on the engineering side of things. So how did he do?
Well it might be this knowledge that has shaped the idea in my mind this record seems rooted in the midrange and a tiny bit on the muddy side. That asserted, would I have characterized this more as ‘warm-sounding’, had I not known that Mercer supposedly regards himself as something of a novice? I’d probably not have thought about it at all in fact – perception is a strange old thing. I’m sure most musicians would give their right or left strumming arms to be at the level of Mercer.
Audophile wankery aside – what are the tunes like? Well, I guess, a bit like the record before it, this is not The Shins of the 2000-2010 era so don’t be hoping for a return to the good old days. If you are managing your expectations wisely though, this is a fine LP. If you don’t see The Shins as a guitar band you’ll fare even better. Despite the buoyant guitar vibe of first track ‘Name for You’, by the time you reach track two ‘Painting a Hole’ things are sounding distinctly deep, down and dirty, whilst ‘Cherry Hearts’ has a fun little synth opening that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Yeasayer tune.
Lyrically the maturity is striking on ‘Heartworms’ from the reality of parenthood to reflections on the author’s own childhood. This doesn’t make for self-indulgence though or cheesy sentimentality, this is simply a songwriter dealing with the now, both in terms of context, be it the necessity which dictates Mercer must be able to switch from doing the school run to early morning music sessions, and also in terms of the means of production, i.e. getting down these ideas onto a home computer rather than spending a fortune in a studio with a band, big name producer, the right engineer and perhaps even having the record label overcharge for the privilege.
Conjecture aside, this appears to be a modern man making a modern record in more ways than one then. A standout track is ‘Mildenhall’, touching in its content and delivery, whilst it is ‘Dead Alive’ which maybe best conjures the classic Shins sound many might associate Mercer with. Closer, ‘The Fear’, contains a very pleasing rhythm track and is a definite sign this is a fellow more than able to hold his own in the production/engineering stakes for years to come. Mission accomplished.