When The Shins released debut album Oh, Inverted World, it was significant for two reasons. The first is that it was a distinct turning point for their label, Sub Pop, who – after something of a post-grunge identity crisis and brush with irrelevancy – had started to find their feet once again. The second is that it introduced to the world a band of phenomenal talent, one guided by mainman James Mercer’s knack for crafting oddball yet beautiful, irreverent yet poignant, songs.
That was back in 2001. Today, The Shins are a major label affair who have drifted far from the sound of those auspicious career beginnings - over the course of the next four albums and 16 years, the Albuquerque band’s line-up changed about as much as their music. Last year saw the release of their fifth album, Heartworms, a record that consisted of eccentric but cerebral bubblegum pop that, largely and somewhat ironically, eschewed emotion in favour of experimental musicality. It wasn’t bad, per se, but it wasn’t particularly good. More than anything, it was cold, detached, emotionless – a world away from the warm, fuzzy glow that emanated from them in their earlier years.
If further proof were needed that Mercer was more obsessed with the form of his compositions than their contents, it’s this. Neither an entirely new record or an entirely old one, The Worms’s Heart is a 'flipped' version of Heartworms – the track listing is in reverse order and the songs have been reincarnated and reimagined as something not altogether opposite, but certainly different enough. As such, ‘The Fear’, the maudlin, dirge-like closer of Heartworms, opens The Worm’s Heart as ‘The Fear (Flipped)’ in a more loose and almost psychedelic form. The tempo is upped, Mercer’s voice is lowered and the effect of the song is transformed significantly.
That one works – just – though the original remains the superior version. Elsewhere, the new form of ‘Dead Alive (Flipped)’ is reshaped to devastating effect, its new form much more fitting of its subject matter than its previous one, while the carefree chords of ‘Cherry Hearts (Flipped)’ are much more amenable than the original version. At the same time, the reggae/ska island vibes of ‘Half A Million (Flipped)’ – which almost make Vampire Weekend sound like a good idea – is painfully unlistenable whimsy that grates from the very first note to the last. It’s followed by the almost gentle, almost graceful ‘Rubber Ballz (Flipped)’, which harks back to the band’s earlier days, but which is actually an inferior version of its counterpart.
To that extent, The Worm’s Heart is a kind of – presumably accidental – attack on the idea of an album as a coherent body of work. It undermines the intent of the original songs by offering little more than an alternative to listen to just for the sake of it. This isn’t, years later, discovering a new and different way of playing a hit that embellishes or strengthens its original, but a forced and somewhat hokey concept. You could – probably – extract one whole good record from the pair, but for them to exist in the same space and at the same time is, ultimately, unnecessary. It is, when it comes down to it, a sloppy gimmick. One, admittedly, that has a few choice moments, but which would have been much better served if Mercer had streamlined all his ideas down in the first place instead of treating these songs as malleable, never-finished opuses.
5Mischa Pearlman's Score