The Shins last released an album in 2012, the year that people thought the world would end. In 2017, the world seems to be crumbling around us, but life keeps on going on. Enter Heartworms, where The Shins are combining a sound that could be the upbeat soundtrack of indie rom-coms with lyrics about the grim reality of mundanely dealing with modern life.
Cheerful in melody, but downbeat in tone, ‘Name for You’ is a story about girls who run after success and drink red wine, as people who don’t understand them call them names, which the listener can infer are nasty. It’s feel trapped by jobs, the economy, expectations, societal norms – in 2017, there’s no shortage of things to make a person feel terrible about their decisions decisions. ‘Painting a Hole’ with its earnest melodies combined with measured drum beats is paired with James Mercer’s sweeping “ooh-ah” to guide the listener into feeling trapped as the echoing guitar lines build and build.
Sometimes, the only way to find solace is in the complexities of romantic interactions, a collection of distractions from the facts and figures of real life. ‘Cherry Hearts’ sounds almost a song that belongs in a video game with its use of synthesisers is perfect for reducing lust to a crush with no consequences with its lyrics of being swept away by kisses.
Even when caught up in the despair of making compromises in life, The Shins don’t tumble into dreariness. ‘Fantasy Island’ retains a brilliant, dreamy pace through relaxed instrumentals and metaphors of aging pirates to convey feelings of having lost out on life’s great adventures. Placed alongside ‘Half a Million,’ themes of conflict within oneself are clear within this album: “there’s a half a million things/That I am meant to be.”
‘Heartworms’ initially sounds like an answer to ‘All You Need is Love’ by The Beatles. Instead of a being about the power of love to heal, it’s about how love can eat us up from the inside. The song lends its name to the album’s title, reflecting the darker side of indie pop – that the cheerful melodies cannot always distract from reality. ‘The Fear’ initially sounds like a chilled out tune that contradicts its title – butt mournful harmonicas soon pair with lyrics that describe it’s the terror that accompanies pondering life choices.
Indie rock bands can run the risk of limiting their lyrical choices to be exclusively about matters of the heart, and this can make them a self-involved art form. In a time where culture is needed for inspiration and not mere distraction, indie music can sound dreary if it doesn’t engage with its environment. The Shins haven’t quite cracked what contemporary indie music should sound like – but they have evolved to ensure that they’re not irrelevant.