The Shins’ new album gave me Heartworms

Alright, so I am very excited to talk about this album.

In preparation for Shaky Knees Music Festival this weekend, I’ve been revisiting The Shins, a band that holds a pretty special place in my heart. Wincing the Night Away was the first ever album that I owned on vinyl and I have fond memories of laying on my bedroom floor at night and reading the lyric excerpts as I let the whole album play three or four times through. I’m sure that my friends got tired of me playing “Sleeping Lessons” for them, but I just could not help it. That song changed my life and it will never not excite me. James Mercer is an absolute p-o-e-t- but not in the kind of way where he needs you to know it. His beautiful lyrics are woven throughout the brilliantly produced melodies and sounds in the subtlest of ways.

As I was treating myself to this trip down memory lane, I realized I had not yet listened to their new album start to finish while reading the lyrics, the way I’d first done those many Christmases ago with my newly unwrapped digs. And boy, am I thankful that I had this revelation. Their new album Heartworms, which came out in March of this year, does not have a mediocre song on it. This album is unlike anything they’ve ever done and so, if you’re still with me, I’d like to walk through it with ya and hopefully convince you to give it a listen.

Name For You

This song gives me definite “Girl Sailor” throwback vibes in the way that it characterizes a strong female muse who is – get this guys – NOT NECESSARILY a love interest. Mercer has always had the ability to portray the female experience in a very compassionate way. Also, one of the reasons I think this album is so refreshing is because it doesn’t hide behind the heavy veil of metaphor present within their previous albums. Instead, these songs have much clearer messages, all without being polarizing or embarrassing. It’s light, and I really appreciate that.

Standout Lyrics

“Somebody with an antique notion
comes along to tighten the line
They’re just afraid of you speaking your mind”

“You can keep your can up
If you just never eat again
It’s a means to a terrible end”

“Yeah it’s a bland kind of torture
You’ve played the mother and wife
But what do you really dream of at night?”

Painting a Hole

This second track is a mesmerizing commentary on our generation and how we deal with the struggles of existing. It’s another example of how the social messages that have existed within The Shins’ previous music have become much more defined on this album. “Painting a Hole” is a symbolic expression for the ways that we both cope with our problems (“You’re painting a hole, can you crawl up inside it? You’re painting a hole, on everyone in your way”) and how we tend to avoid them (“You’re painting a hole to the magical violence. You’re painting a hole, but it keeps fading away.”)

Standout lyrics

“So many germs to avoid
Thinking about it just nurtures them
Baby, return to your toys
A little mental hideaway”

“Morning dove
One thing I’m sure of
Kisses ain’t near enough
To reign the vultures in”

Cherry Hearts

This is a song that a lot of us can relate to. It’s both fun and bittersweet, and once again we get a look into the world of James Mercer in a way that we’ve never really gotten before. This song is focused, and you never question what it’s about. He’s got it bad for a girl that doesn’t have it bad for him, and from here on out this becomes a major recurring theme of the album.

Standout lyrics

“I’m a practical guy
but sometimes I can fly off the handle
Thinking in scandalous ways”

“I’ve never done time
But I’ve done the crime of wanting
Something that never could stay”

Fantasy Island/ Mildenhall

I’m going to talk about these two songs together, because they’re both deeply personal ones. “Fantasy Island” is a reflection on his childhood, and it’s a very honest admission of faults that he had growing up, as well as ones he sees in himself now. If “Fantasy Island” is a song about the insecurity and fear that has followed him since boyhood, “Mildenhall” narrates how he came to discover music. It’s a Southern-esque ballad sung to his younger self. Both songs explain how he got to where he is today.

Standout lyrics

“I’ve always had something to hide
My skinny arms, my evil intentions
And back at school, hitting the fire alarms
Desperately wanting attention”

“I don’t want to show you my feelings
I don’t want to force you to deal
I just want to crash through the ceiling
before it gets too real”

“I guess my shoes said I might relate
Somehow she knew I’d like to stay up
waiting with her in the cold
For cheap beer and rock ’n roll
Which in time put lots of things in my mind”

Rubber Ballz

I’m really happy to discover that even rock stars are troubled with chasing after women that couldn’t care whether they stayed or left. Here again, we see the repetition of the theme, “Help, I’ve caught the feels.” This song is so playful, and the vocals really bounce around in a way that sounds so congruent to their previous albums. The lyrics are pretty cheeky as well, and they add an element of humor to this otherwise serious record.

Standout lyrics

“I know
If she gave a f*** then it would show
And she wouldn’t have me stabbing other boys
Like it’s just a bit of sweetness she enjoys”

“Hold on, maybe this girl is alright
Just wants the benefit of a modern love life
and I can’t tell the difference anymore
I’ve turned making bad decisions
Into some kind of art form
Don’t mention boundaries on the phone
They slide and glide right on out the door”

“My vices have voted,
her ass duly noted,
I can’t kick her out of my bed”

Half A Million

Ok, I know I’ve been pretty excited about all of these, but this is a goooooood song. It covers so much – the expectations placed on him, the confusion of being a person who feels things, and how he escapes these pressures – they’re all featured. This song expresses the way in which Mercer uses that fear and inadequacy talked about in the previous songs to create something that allows him to free himself of those burdens.

Standout lyrics

…All of them? But I’ll try to whittle it down.

“I make myself a promise
then break it every night
I’m feeling loose and life don’t make no sense
I use my brains to build a fence
‘round the claim I stake
I take the drugs but the drugs won’t take”

“There’s half a million things that I’m supposed to be
A shelter in the nighttime
A punk running free
And if it gets too deep
I reach for my guitar
And if I try hard,
I find something I can really drop into
And everything is just a thing that I can sing”

Dead Alive/So Now What

I’d like to compare these two songs because they both feel like a tribute to Mercer’s old style of writing. “Dead Alive” takes on a more surrealist and severe tone, talking about moments of emotional confusion and the sense of being overwhelmed or fearful of your own mind. “So Now What” is a nice juxtaposition to this style in the sense that it is soft and romantic, but it is similar in the way that it is less narrative-driven than the other songs on the album. It’s not so much telling a story as it is conveying an emotion.

Standout lyrics

“On a walk in a fragile state
Weird angles coming over the wire
Back home we got girls in braids and they’re on
roller skates and they roll any way
they like”

“I had this crazy idea,
Somehow we cruise to the end
Change lives and everything precious
And I guess we’ll just begin again
I hope you know you’re my best friend”

The Fear

This song really communicates something important. As I read the lyrics I felt like I was reading a confession about my own anxieties, and the duality of wanting to be happy and feeling as though you’ve tried everything, but also yearning to accept yourself as you are and to give yourself the grace of understanding. It gives a voice to those moments where we’re feeling good and we suddenly consider it somewhat silly to have spend so much time riding a low.

Standout lyrics

“Feel the fear
Of all the stupid things
A man could feel
While his freedom rings
He squanders the deal”

“This fear is a terrible drug
If only I had sense enough
To let it give way to love”

“Come back and touch my face
Feel for fever in the night
You look into my eyes
But you don’t really recognize me


So this track is a bit whiny, but in a very self aware and honest way. Aren’t we allowed to be whiny sometimes? “Heartworms,” the song which is the album’s namesake, reiterates a similar idea to “butterflies in the stomach,” in that something can be enjoyable yet unsettling, and quite possibly unhealthy. We know, through the inclusion of the whole “heart” motif, that his affliction is one of the emotions. This title track effectively describes the theme that runs through each song, and ties Heartworms together succinctly.

Standout Lyrics

“Anything to get some of your affection
Maybe impress you with a song
I’m trying to minimize the damage done
‘cause there ain’t no one like you”

“I’m trying to figure out when it was
you gave me these heartworms
I feel them wriggling in my blood,
ya’ gonna do me harm”

“Right now I’d rather lose this losing feeling
that came when you cooled off”

In my oh-so-professional opinion, this album is breathtaking. I hope that you give it a listen, and that you can appreciate the lovely sounds coming out of James Mercer’s mouth, as well as the synthesizing rhythms and samples that are unique to the style of The Shins. But also, I hope you get to experience the pleasure of taking in all these wonderful noises while following along to the lyrics. It’s really easy to miss them in their music, and I underrated them for a long time. This album really is so set apart from their others, and while Wincing the Night Away still tickles my nostalgia bone, I truly believe that Heartworms is a work of genius. This experience was actually very healing for me, and if you guys can get anything out of it in the way that I did, that would be like, super cool.

5 out of 5 Marriage Proposals to James Mercer

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