Since James Mercer rebooted the Shins with a new lineup on 2012's Port of Morrow, the project has been a more freewheeling affair, and never more so than on Heartworms. This is easily the most wide-ranging music he's made with any project, including Broken Bells. Within a handful of tracks, the band touches on psychedelic exotica ("Painting a Hole"), Weezer-ish new wave (the standout "Half a Million"), and throwbacks to the Oh, Inverted World/Chutes Too Narrow era (the title track, "Dead Alive"). Not coincidentally, Mercer handles the lion's share of Heartworms' production duties, and he packs these songs with sounds and ideas until they're ready to burst. Sometimes, this oversaturated approach pays off: "Cherry Hearts"' busy electropop captures the head-over-heels thrill of a drunken kiss. Elsewhere, it feels like the album's hyper-detailed words and sounds fight against each other instead of working together: on "Name for You," the shiny arrangement overwhelms the song's feminist lyrics. Not surprisingly, the more intimate songs are some of the album's best entry points. "Mildenhall," a country-tinged reminiscence about how Mercer fell in love with music as a teen while living in England, is one of his finest songs yet, capturing big moments with little details ("A kid in class passed me a tape/A band called the Jesus and Mary Chain"). Similarly, the album's final two songs show just how skilfully -- and unpredictably -- the Shins can pair words and sounds. "So Now What" is an ode to commitment that sounds like it could float away at any moment, while "The Fear" sets the insecurities that creep into long relationships to a steady beat and romantic strings. Though it takes a few listens to get to the heart of Heartworms, fans who have stuck with Mercer for this long will find it time well spent.
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AllMusic Review by Heather Phares