by Grant Foskett
The Worm’s Heart is a “flipped” version of The Shins 2017 album, Heartworms. This is a concept lead member James Mercer has been toying with for a while but has just now managed to put it into practice. In general, the idea of flipping an album lies in making the slow songs fast, the downtrodden tracks upbeat, the synthetic songs acoustic, and vice-versa. For better or worse, The Worm’s Heart mostly accomplishes the goal of flipping Heartworms on its head but doing so definitely exacerbates some of the issues the original album faced. The Worm’s Heart is, even at its best, inconsistent, but still manages to deliver a few gems.
To start, I think it’s clear that The Worm’s Heart features some of the worst songs The Shins have ever released. Sometimes the group takes the idea of flipping the song a little bit too far and ends up corrupting the message or emotion of the original. For example, ‘Half a Million’ features bouncy, almost reggae inspired guitars that strangle the philosophical message Mercer is trying to deliver. The centerpiece of Heartworms, ‘Mildenhall,’ devolves from a slow and nostalgic country-esque ballad to an annoying mess of poorly-mixed keyboard and a James Mercer that sounds very out of his vocal element. My personal favorite, ‘Name For You’ completely loses its sarcastic and saccharine tone in favor of dark, almost gloomy synths that feel entirely out of place. The integrity of the songs is often lost completely in absurdist instrumentation that adds nothing to what Mercer is trying to say. The album definitely could have benefited from focusing more on a compelling rework of each song rather than simply a purely flipped version. However, the biggest failure of The Worm’s Heart is the songs that don’t actually feel all that different. Notably, the flipped versions of ‘So Now What’ and ‘The Fear’ are so similar to their original forms that they would not feel out of place on Heartworms.
It wasn’t nearly all bad though. The flipped ‘Heartworms’ for example, expands from a generically dreamy tune into a full-blown danceable hit complete with punching drums and a groovy synth line. ‘Cherry Heart’ also improves quite a bit. Originally an out of place synth explosion on Heartworms, the flipped version finds its footing with more traditional instrumentation, especially in its ear-worm of a guitar riff. ‘Dead Alive’ is another example of a song where the flipped version clearly adds something substantial to the meaning of the song. This time around, ‘Dead Alive’ feels like Mercer struggling with a painful bout of nostalgia for a lost loved one rather than the happy remembrance of the original. This is mainly due to the intelligent instrumentation choice. The flipped version features simple piano mixed with intermittent violin as a backdrop for Mercer’s voice, creating a much more somber tone than the original. To me, ‘Dead Alive’ is an example of a flipped song done right. The new version neither detracts from the original nor devalues it, it simply sheds new light on the emotion Mercer was trying to convey.
Frankly, the issue with much of The Worm’s Heart is not in concept, but in execution. Mercer and The Shins prove with songs like ‘Heartworms’ that there is plenty of interesting territory to explore in the idea of a “flipped” album. But they also prove that literally flipping tempo, tone, and instrumentation on top of the same lyrics is not the way to go about it. Overall, The Worm’s Heart is incredibly uneven. There are some cuts that completely outshine their original versions, but also some that I wish never existed. In the end though, I would say it’s clear that The Worm’s Heart is a successful experiment. After all, The Shins have proved they can make a better flipped album than Kendrick Lamar can.