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The Shins - The Worm's Heart (Album Review)

Thursday, 25 January 2018 Written by Jonathan Rimmer

It’s now nearly a decade since James Mercer cut ties with his bandmates in the Shins and took all creative matters into his own hands. While subsequent records may have left listeners in no doubt as to whether he was the project’s true auteur, they’re also evidence of a misshapen band.

The goofy quartet that wrote charming indie-rock tracks like New Slang and Caring is Creepy are dead, replaced by a revolving door of guest musicians led by an increasingly experimental Mercer. Fans who have made peace with that change may still have enjoyed last year’s ‘Heartworms’, a collection of tolerable if uninspiring psychedelic tunes with pleasant vocal hooks.

Nevertheless, you can’t help but feel that ‘The Worm’s Heart’, a “flipped” edition of ‘Heartworms’ composed of reworked versions of its tracks, is an unnecessary and unwanted project.

Rather than experiment with new ideas, or at the very least remix the band’s classics, Mercer has elected to reanimate songs that were already limited in scope.

It’s not all as depressing as it sounds as each track retains its top melody, with Mercer instead choosing to play “slow songs fast, quiet songs louder, fast songs slower and loud songs quieter”. Reassuringly, the album also (for the most part) dispenses with the suffocating production that made ‘Heartworms’ so unpalatable at points.

It’s also to Mercer’s credit that he’s capable of making songs that he’s undoubtedly agonised over for months and years sound breezy and unfussy. Consequently, the best tracks on here tend to be stripped back reinterpretations of the more ostentatious ones on ‘Heartworms’. Rubber Ballz, previously one of his more obnoxious cuts, is recast as a bubbly acoustic number, and Dead Alive feels far less claustrophobic with the addition of subtle strings and plonking piano.

Unfortunately, this is also true for the reverse. Guitar-led tracks become synth-led at many points, almost always unnecessarily. Then there’s Mildenhall, a previously gentle and likeable song, which is transformed with swirling organs and bluesy rhythms. That shift is then compounded by jagged guitar countermelodies for good measure. You’d give Mercer props for creativity if it weren’t so grating and migraine-inducing.

Putting these wild misfires to one side, it’s the tracks with subtler alterations that sum up the Shins’ difficulty as an ongoing project. Since the break-up of the original line-up, Mercer has clearly drawn inspiration from Of Montreal and Animal Collective in terms of production, with ‘Heartworms’ making use of heavy reverb and surreal frequencies.

While Mercer’s obsession with this sound might make for derivative songwriting, it’s at least a style that suits his wider artistic vision. Tracks like Fantasy Island and So Now What, for example, originally worked because they were so dreamy and otherworldly. Attempts to rewrite them in a more straight-up pop-rock style on ‘The Worm’s Heart’ just dilute what was enjoyable about them in the first place.

Choosing to the resuscitate the band’s most inconsistent and lifeless record was undeniably Mercer’s first mistake but, more worryingly, you get the sense he’s still attempting to satisfy both older fans and his own experimental impulses. With the band’s glory days long behind them, it’s increasingly obvious that the latter is the only path with any remote potential.

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