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The Mercer legacy: which record from The Shins is their strongest ever?

Evolution has been a tremendous theme throughout The Shins’ career. Whether they’re transforming their bill, sound or approach, the band have never managed to find a comfortable niche to settle down in.

However, instead of letting this constant fidgeting work to the detriment of their music, they’ve turned it into one of their greatest assets, championing a sound that is simultaneously varied and distinct. Despite their many internal conflicts and line-up changes, The Shins are yet to make an underwhelming or substandard record and even after five studio albums, it still feels like they have many more facets of their colourful and multi-dimensional sound to flaunt and unveil.

the shins james mercer every album ranked from worst to best happy mag heartworms

Where does Heartworms sit in the formidable back catalogue of The Shins? We dissect their work to date, ranking each album from worst to best.

5. Port Of Morrow

The Shins seem to travel in a new direction with every record, it’s no secret they’re unable maintain satisfaction with one, recognisable sound and completely hone it. On 2012’s Port Of Morrow, however, the band weren’t just travelling in a different direction, they were untying their boat from it’s dock and sailing into seas that left some fans in a place of discomfort.

Allowing the record to be more accessible and hold more pop appeal, the band had a more anthemic and cheerful outlook on Port Of Morrow. Leaving some of the darkness explored on earlier records behind, the outfit had a new found love for singing guitars, bouncy beats and catchier choruses.

While what came out of Port Of Morrow wasn’t necessarily game-changing, the record was an outlet for them to dispense some of their most explosive and loud material to date (Bait & Switch, No Way Down). However, embedded within the album’s tidy and concentrated production came a lack of personality and heart, integral parts of their previous outputs. They had misplaced something so important and, in turn, made a record that didn’t feel as authentic.

4. Heartworms

Heartworms is The Shins’ most experimental record to date. Playing around with abrasive electronic sounds that are relatively out of character for the band, they don’t hold anything back. Completely stripping away distortion-tinged guitars, once a vital part of a Shins record, they explore uncharted territory and their sound in more depth on Heartworms.

Alike to Port Of Morrow, they aim for a more appealing sound with memorable hooks aplenty. However, instead of reaching their hand into the world of indie rock to create peppier feel, they dive into the electro-pop sphere, taking inspiration from bands like Dirty Projectors. The 80s influence certainly isn’t absent on the record either.

Heartworms is a bright and warm return for The Shins after a five-year break.

3. Oh, Inverted World

When constructing a debut album, the unrealistic goal that is perfection should never be something to strive for. Instead, the primary goal of a premiere project should be to tease some of what you have to offer and leave listeners wanting more.

The Shins’ 2001 debut, Oh, Inverted World did just that. The album is one that went on to shape the sounds of many indie rock acts that existed throughout the naughties. Even today you can still hear its timeless, bittersweet jangle ring out in the music of some the most exiting acts of this decade. While flawed and at times, indecisive, it manages to maintain an astounding amount of cohesion and maturity.

Taking cues from The Beach Boys and The Beatles, Oh, Inverted World makes typical, sunny rock sombre with darker lyrical themes. From beginning to end, the record never lacks in integrity or truth. Everything feels real and exposed and because of that, it’s by far The Shins’ most honest work.

2. Wincing The Night Away

Wincing The Night Away is one of The Shins’ greatest masterpieces. The layered, rich and vibrant record was composed in the dark of night and echoes with the tired, hazy attitudes reflective of those times. ‘Under-appreciated’ hardly begins to describe the state of the album. The band pulled off a sound that is polished but still filled with character, creating an amalgamation of the most enticing aspects of their sound.

The skeletal and exposed instrumentals are ridiculously refreshing compared to some of the more cluttered and involved ones on previous outputs. Cuts like Black Wave and A Comet Appears have an emptiness and vacancy laced throughout them, exhibiting an intense and heavy side of Mercer’s songwriting.

Even on the record’s bright and rich cuts, everything feels succinct, purposeful and necessary. The album contains some examples of Mercer’s greatest songwriting and plays seamlessly from beginning to end, it’s hollow indie rarely exhausting.

1. Chutes Too Narrow

People don’t fall in love The Shins because they are this revolutionary, genre-defining band. People fall in love with The Shins because they make the kind of music that you connect with. They make the kind of music that soundtracks a significant time in a person’s life. They make the kind of music that certainly isn’t flawless or smooth but more reflects our state, as deeply imperfect beings.

Chutes Too Narrow is the album that makes you realise exactly why people fall in love with this band. The album is wonderfully versatile, ringing with as much gloom as exuberance. Kissing The Lipless rips open the record, setting a precedent for the rest of the album. Filled with gaudy guitars and intimate, strong vocal performances, the remainder of the record goes onto serve as an outlet for Mercer to express some of his built-up frustration about his heartbreaks and setbacks.

Chutes Too Narrow is their most confident effort, each song feeling even more ambitious than the last. It highlights a definite peak in The Shins’ career and serves as a reminder as to why they are such a loved band.

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March 23, 2017

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