The Shins' 'Heartworms' Cover Inspiration: Japanese Yokai Art From a Cartoon Network Whiz

Marisa Kula Mercer
James Mercer of The Shins

Singer James Mercer & album designer Jacob Escobedo go behind-the-scenes on the creation of the striking artwork.

The Shins have long used kaleidoscopic illustrations for their album covers -- artistic embellishments of nature that exist somewhere between the everyday and the fantasies of Dr. Seuss. Their debut release, 2001's Oh, Inverted World, depicted the simplistic blooms of a plant, while its follow-up, 2003's Chutes Too Narrow, was a brightly colored paper-cut landscape. For 2007's Wincing the Night Away, The Shins frontman James Mercer turned to his own brother Robert, who delivered a surreal archipelago of islands -- a piece of a map to a place that does not exist.

For The Shins’ last two albums, Mercer has enlisted the services of designer Jacob Escobedo, perhaps best known as the VP of design/creative for Adult Swim and Cartoon Network. “Working with Jacob is just the easiest thing in the world,” Mercer enthuses. “It's always very rewarding. You just feel like he's got your back.”

The artwork for Heartworms -- the Shins’ fifth album, released March 10 -- marks the indie group’s most striking imaging yet: a surreal design born of the LP’s thematic contrast. “After hearing the album, I had this vision of worms overtaking a lush garden, pouring out of a dead heart,” says Escobedo.

Before achieving the final product, Mercer sent Escobedo photos of algae formations on glass as inspiration. The artist says he “couldn’t quite make it work,” but eventually Escobedo offered a design inspired by 19th-century Japanese yokai art, which depicts “evil spirits and monsters.” The style has been a longtime obsession for Escobedo, who also is influenced by Penguin Books sci-fi covers and French surrealist Yves Tanguy.

The cover speaks to Heartworms’ duality, where darker songs that dabble in the psychedelic pair with the softer, folk-inspired sound that first brought The Shins to prominence. For Mercer, the results were beyond satisfactory.

“There's beauty in it -- I'm thinking of the look of those flowers, and the colors that are so gorgeous -- and then there's this specter of a human skull and the grotesque image of the heartworms coming out of him,” he says. "There's heartbreak on this record, real heartbreak, and there’s uplifting moments. So yeah, he really nailed it.”