This one's personal. With the Shins' James Mercer, you could never be entirely sure if he was writing about himself or someone else, whether he was peeling back his own life or just crafting stories set to beautifully appointed art-pop music. But on "Heartworms" (Aural Apothecary/Columbia Records), the first Shins album in five years, Mercer opens up in lyrics that are as emotionally transparent as his melodies.
"Mildenhall," the album's centerpiece, is also its most stripped-down song, an ambling neo-country ballad set to a drum machine. Mercer details his coming of age as the son of a military man living in a foreign land. He fends off homesickness by listening to the Jesus and Mary Chain and writing songs. He sounds offhanded and vulnerable.
Just as personal but far more ornate is "Name for You," a message to his three daughters to find their own path around society's patriarchal restrictions. Yet the song never slips into "concerned parent" cliche because of the springy keyboards and cascading vocals. And in "So Now What," Mercer writes a love song to his wife that muses on resilience and mortality with a yearning melody and soaring chorus.
One element that remains constant with every Shins album for the past 15 years is its concision: 11 tightly packed songs in less than 42 minutes. The musical sprawl encompasses the vaguely sinister psychedelia of "Painting a Hole" (which wouldn't sound out of place on an album by Mercer's side project Broken Bells with Danger Mouse), the bouncy Split Enz-style new wave of "Half a Million" and the sumptuous strings in the anxiety-ridden "The Fear."
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At times, the ornate arrangements can sound overly fussy — which is why the bare-bones clarity of "Mildenhall" is so refreshing. After a decade-plus in which they've evolved from cult heroes to respected major-label denizens, the Shins still prove capable of delivering a few surprises.