In 2009, The Shins had soared the heights as everyone’s favourite indie band after the releases of their subliminal debut 'Oh, Inverted World' and stellar follow ups 'Chutes Too Narrow' and 'Wincing The Night Away' - earning themselves that Garden State quote to forever live up to in the process.
Then, frontman James Mercer had enough. Exhausted and on the verge of quitting, he felt the need to shake up The Shins formation and fired his bandmates (which perhaps remains the most prominent example of his later self-confessed “benevolent dictator” trait).
While 2012´s 'Port Of Morrow' brought many players to the recording process, including contributions from past band members and production assistance from heavyweight Greg Kurstin, last year's 'Heartworms' was a more solitary record, with Mercer taking on all song writing and production responsibilities.
There was never an album when The Shins felt more defined by Mercer alone, “The word hermetic its pretty good, it was quite sealed off from everybody else” he tells Clash. “I certainly spent more time alone with the record and doing a lot of the engineering myself, and that was a conscious decision.”
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Now, building on the input of his new band—currently formed by Yuuki Matthews (bass), Jon Sortland (drums), Mark Watrous (guitar), Casey Foubert (guitar), and Patti King (keyboards)—on the unplanned, off the cuff ´flipped´ version of 'Heartworms', 'The Worm´s Heart', Mercer has discovered the joys of working together, inclusively, with his band again. The result? A joyously unpredictable, adventurous The Shins album.
'The Worm´s Heart' came as a bit of fun to fill some studio time after wrapping up Heartworms. “We thought 'Heartworms' was going to come out in September 2016, then it got pushed back” Mercer explains. “We had some extra time and just re-recorded everything for the hell of it.”
'The Worm´s Heart' is made up entirely of 'Heartworms' songs, but ´flipped´, “…we thought about just doing an opposite record, just take everything and put it on its head.” Flipping is a term which, musically, is vague at best, and it doesn’t do justice to what Mercer and his band have done here. It is not just that slow songs become fast, but the songs expand, each exploring different genres, ranging from rock n´ roll, blues, punk, etc.
For a band that is so uniquely defined by sounding “Shins-y”—that soft, acoustic hum complemented by pensive melodies and sweeping hooks—to venture so drastically into new territories is unexpected, and even a bit daunting to the fans who so rely on the sonic safety of Mercer´s dependable auditory formula.
But 'The Worm's Heart' is a rewarding listening experience—songs like 'Mildenhall', a percussion-heavy folk song on the 'Heartworms' album, re-emerges as rockabilly track and it works well as both. “Name for You”, originally a poppier-upbeat offering, turns into synthed-up, gritty track on 'The Worm´s Heart' and, while the 'Heartworms' version was perfectly likeable, the reworked version is, frankly, better.
“We felt that way on a lot of these songs” says Mercer. “Some of the songs really blossomed, and led to me think, yeah they are better, more engaging.” Was he discontented with outcome of 'Heartworms'? “No—I really felt like 'Heartworms' was complete, but re-approaching it and having ideas coming in from the rest of the band changed things.”
Mercer says that he would consider flipping and re-recording songs for future records, and has learnt from experimenting with his bandmates, “What stuck with me is how much I enjoyed working with the rest of my band in the studio again and really being much more inclusive in the process.”
So, while Heartworms can be considered a product of Mercer in full-on benevolent dictator mode, 'The Worm´s Heart' may have put an end to his one-man Shins reign, “…basically, I would like to use everybody as a team more.”
Democracy is sweet, right?
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'The Worm's Heart' is out now.
Words: Charis McGowan
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