The Shins’ fifth album, Heartworms, could not have arrived at a worse time, dropping as it has at the tail end of an biannual debate over the viability of indie rock. The culprits this time are Dirty Projectors’ David Longstreth and Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold, followed by all four Cloud Nothings clicking “Tweet”, with Parquet Courts nudged into a rebuttal. It should be a truism that “indie rock” (for which the Shins once bore the standard) is a peculiar construct of race and gender and economic status. Or that whatever one’s preferred indie-rock ratio of eccentricity to comfort, it can be–and always has been–found within an R&B playlist, a major-label rap release, or an atmospheric black metal record. Or that it took Longstreth eight (eight!) tweets to mention Puberty 2.
But here we are, hung up on a discussion that was dead air in 2007, when the Shins’ Wincing the Night Away notched Sub Pop’s best-ever chart showing, a not-shameful #2 finish behind Pretty Ricky. At the time, much was made of indie rock’s sudden commercial heft. Even though overall album sales were clearly in freefall, a phrase like Death Cab For Cutie’s first #1 album was bound to induce some dissonance. The Shins’ early efforts were hailed as pop masterworks by an indie-rock press struggling to reconcile itself to pop. By the time of Wincing–an excellent showing of pure pop–that same press was struggling to reconcile itself to indie rock. Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow were very good records, but as pop they were compromised. The keening tenor of James Mercer (the only constant Shin) tended to blur into a sunny yelp; the arrangements were sturdy but rarely solid. Too often, the band sounded like Curt Boettcher holed up in a Los Angeles bungalow with only a four-track and his bile for company. In time, Shins praise became a kind of shorthand for the smarm of the newly converted, exemplified by a reference in a Zach Braff movie–no, not that one—which I’m legally obliged to mention.
So if anyone had the right to jump into the debate, it’d be Mercer. And even though this is the man who once sang “I don’t look back much as a rule,” he does indulge some nostalgia this time out. It just bypasses the Oughts entirely. Album centerpiece “Mildenhall” is a affecting shuffler: a countrified recollection of Mercer’s childhood as a military brat living in England, discovering the Jesus and Mary Chain, skating home from concerts at the Corn Exchange. “Rubber Ballz” rolls its eyes at Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” nicks ELO on the chorus, and bursts into a classic Shins vocal hook. “Cherry Hearts” comes on like Green Gartside at his most eccentric: Gawky synth programming pings across the staff as Mercer deconstructs a kiss, positing it as both crime (“Thinking in scandalous ways/I’ve never done time”) and punishment (“My head went rolling on the floor/Past the window, out the door”).
Nothing on Heartworms matches the processional majesty of Port of Morrow’s “Simple Song,” or even the go-for-broke mugging of “Fall of ‘82,” an unholy riff on Joe Walsh, Steely Dan, and Thin Lizzy. What Heartworms does have, though, is the informal approach to formalism shared by another Southwesterner transplanted to Portland, Britt Daniel. Drummer John Sortland keeps things taut: he Glitterbeats past the graveyard on the moody “Dead Alive” and grounds the hallucinogenic New Wave cut “Painting a Hole” with his Spectorian clop. “Painting” and opener “Name For You” each boasts a modified ska upstroke, which is a really neat thing to say about a Shins record. Mercer’s ageless vocals swoop over it all. He’s playful in a way that he never quite was while in Broken Bells, his interim collaboration with Danger Mouse that was named after a thing that doesn’t sound so good. But Heartworms has the same sense of concision. Gone are the stretched-out sentences and overcooked clauses, perhaps for good. He still steps on the occasional rake when singing about sex: “Rubber Ballz” blithely attempts to depict a horny lil’ stinker, but the subject’s desire to get with his lover’s sister and the couplet “my vices have voted/her ass duly noted” scupper any good will.
But by the close of the record, Mercer finally finds a use for bedroom drama. “The Fear” is a prickly, lonely organism. The harmonium breathes as if to cure a panic attack; Sortland’s sticks clack like a too-loud heart. “What took me this long?” Mercer moans. “Can’t we hit rewind/On somebody’s magic bong”: a perfect impression of an anxious man trying to puncture the tension he’s radiating in waves. He begs his lover to check him for fever, to touch his face, to get any kind of close. Its insularity is alienating, and universal. “You don’t really recognize me anymore,” he sighs, and slips into silence. There’s nothing left to debate.