The Shins' New Album Inspirations: Pink Floyd & Wile E. Coyote

Marisa Kula Mercer
James Mercer of The Shins

Frontman James Mercer discusses "Heartworms," the band's long-awaited fifth LP.

The Shins are growing up -- or, at least, getting a little less happy-go-lucky.

A band once known for its lo-fi lullaby charm, the Portland-based project of singer-songwriter James Mercer has in recent years flirted with the dark side. On Heartworms, their fifth studio album released Friday (March 10), several of the record’s 11 tracks deal with themes of anxiety, aging and a yearning to break free.

While the Shins have always had a touch of malaise in their melodies, Mercer tells Billboard that his band’s new music is in many ways intended to be a companion for lost souls.

“I think misery loves company,” he says. “If you happen to be sad, sometimes it's really annoying to hear the latest pop gem -- you want to hear some gloomy music.”

Mercer mentions one legendary British rock band in particular when discussing The Shins’ evolving sound -- a group that made a career out of experimenting with the boundaries of pop. “I think Pink Floyd is probably a pretty big inspiration,” he admits. "They have these almost melodramatic moments with dissonant chords, and there are definitely dark moments on The Wall. I grew up listening to that stuff.”

One can hear the influence on a track like “Painting a Wall,” where Mercer’s distorted voice hovers over a synthesized raga scale that’s paired with an electrified dulcimer played by Chris Funk of The Decemberists; at its apex, it crescendos into something downright otherworldly. Lyrically, the song explores an equally surreal notion: the idea of literally painting a hole on the side of a wall and walking through it into a new world.

Mercer credits Looney Tunes with sparking the concept. “I've always been fascinated by that moment in the old cartoons, where [Wile E.] Coyote would paint a scene of the highway on a rock and hope that the Roadrunner would smash into it,” he says. "Of course, what happens is that the Roadrunner would just go right into the scene.”

Looney Tunes aside, Mercer also sees the song as a metaphor for belief systems, and how they can cause us to create our own reality. “I guess I was thinking about fascism and so on, and the darkness of what can happen when people decide to believe in anything.”

It’s more than a bit surprising to hear the creative force behind fragile folk-pop gems like “New Slang” and whimsically lovelorn ballads like “Phantom Limb” talking about fascism. Though Heartworms is no less reliant on lush instrumentation and Mercer’s wispy vocals than past Shins albums, it does represent a new step forward for a band that has always treaded with care.

Five years in the making, Heartworms also reflects new changes to The Shins’ ever-shifting lineup; the 2017 incarnation features a new guitarist, keyboardist and drummer. In total, over a dozen musicians have come and gone since Oh, Inverted World appeared in 2001, but the one constant has been Mercer, the project’s chief songwriter, singer, composer and key producer.

“It is a band,” Mercer says. “It's just an amorphous band that kind of revolves around me. The Elephant 6 bands were a bit like that. It's like you get to have the concept of a band but the control of being a singer-songwriter. I guess that just fit my personality well. I enjoy working with other people, but it seems like I really enjoy working alone a lot too.”

Mercer’s loner side is on full display in “Milden Hall,” an autobiographical cut on Heartworms that’s delivered in the guise of a classic country song. In the track, he shares the story of moving to England from Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1986. His father, a munitions officer, was assigned to oversee the U.K.’s armament cache, which included a number of nuclear weapons.

“It’s fascinating to me,” he reflects. “What a strange position to be in -- during the Cold War, no less.” The song takes its cues from the music of Merle Haggard, and the line at the track’s end about a kid in class passing him a Jesus and Mary Chain tape was pulled from real life. “After I moved, I didn't have any interaction with kids -- inside high school and outside of it -- for a year. That's how shy I was. And then there was this moment where a kid passes me a tape, and it was the Jesus and Mary Chain's Psychocandy. I think everybody has that moment where somebody turns them on to the cool, hip sh--. That's what I wanted to tap into.”

Whether The Shins’ new music will “change your life” (as Natalie Portman once proclaimed in Garden State) remains to be seen, but Heartworms is most certainly an album about life’s changes. For Mercer, the mood may be more somber this time around, but his motivation still remains thoroughly rooted in the magic of music.

“When I first started The Shins, I put out my own stuff, and so I had to create a label,” he says. "I came up with the name Aural Apothecary, like medicine for the ears. I guess I've always seen music as something that's helpful to me. One of the wonderful things about music is that if you find the right song, you can basically turn something negative about yourself into something unique and glamorous. That's what it did for me.”