The Shins might be forever associated with indie-folk, but their new album "Heartworms" has forays into 1980s new-wave, psychedelic and power-pop, all while retaining the songwriting voice of James Mercer, which originally propelled them to fame in the mid-2000s.
As a whole, the album is colored by "really conscious decisions to make the production as interesting or engaging as I can," Mercer said in a phone interview.
The opening foray, "Name for You," bridges familiar Shins melody with power-pop, after which the album takes a few hard shifts.
"Cherry Hearts" introduces itself with a burst of 1980s synthesizer sounds before Mercer's vocal enters, accompanied by electronic drum beats and synth bass. The original song couldn't have started farther away from that production, though.
"The working title was 'Shins Music,' because it sounded so classic Shins to me," he said. "It was written on an acoustic guitar." He'd nearly completed the title track, which also fell into his sonic comfort zone, and wasn't happy with another song in the same vein.
It too closely resembled " 'Chutes Too Narrow' or 'Oh, Inverted World,' and so I didn't want to do anymore of that, really. I was just bored of the idea of just doing another song that starts with an acoustic guitar and then we add a cool bass line" and build from there.
So he took the core of "Cherry Hearts" and began experimenting with an arpeggiator and a synth and built a fresh vessel around it.
"Painting a Hole," an extroverted, synthesized slice of Eastern psychedelia, also began as a mellow acoustic track before he tinkered it into something that you wouldn't guess is a Shins song, at least until his voice enters.
He found its original "melancholy, soft" form uninteresting, so he began playing with loops and drums until he came up with a more intriguing juxtaposition.
"I think if it had been in the state that it was in and I didn't mess around with the drums, it probably wouldn't have ended up on the record," he said.
For Shins classicists, the record doesn't short-change Mercer's hooky side (that earworm "Name for You") or sweeping folk and detailed acoustic arrangements ("So Now What" and "The Fear"). Despite being away for five years — a light year given the rapid trend cycles in the indie music world, the album has earned strong reviews.
Mercer self-produced "Heartworms," the Shins' fifth full-length studio album and first since 2012's "Port of Morrow." In that gap, Mercer recorded his second Broken Bells album with producer Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, and toured off it.
After he returned home, he took a couple of months off and then began rebuilding his studio, including time-consuming software updates and buying new gear — and then experimenting with the new songs.
"Port" was co-produced with Greg Kurstin, who co-wrote and produced Adele's ubiquitous hit "Hello," and Burton brings his sonic signature to any project he works on.
After two albums with such distinctive voices, Mercer said he was encouraged to self-produce "Heartworms" by both Burton and Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich. "I think without that, I probably wouldn't have done it."
In part, Mercer said he missed the process of engineering.
"On 'Port of Morrow,' I sort of longed for that quirky weirdness that happens when I'm at the helm," he said. "Greg certainly brought a lot of interesting weirdness to that record because it's got some crazy s--- going on, but there's that inevitable — I don't know what — wackiness that I have a propensity for."
While Mercer's songwriting styles are intact on "Heartworms," the Shins certainly sound different than the songs from the 2004 "Garden State" soundtrack that introduced them to the world. Mercer's approach to writing has evolved in that time as well.
"The writing process is more meshed with the recording process now," he said. Early on he "would write the song and have it ready in its sort of coffee-shop form before I began recording and fleshing it out."
Working with Burton, who has roots in hip-hop production, upended that formula.
"The way that we write is we both start experimenting with instruments and messing around. As soon as we have something that's remotely entertaining we record it and loop it and listen to it and think, 'Where could it go from there?' It's almost like collage, the way Brian works," he said.
The concert on Thursday, May 25, at the Wilma could very well be the first Shins performance in Montana. Mercer said he can't recall the band ever playing here, but if they had "it would've been probably almost 20 years ago."
Mercer's father's side of the family has roots in eastern Montana. His dad grew up on a ranch in Sidney and graduated from the University of Montana. His uncle, John Mercer, runs a ranch in Sidney to this day.
"I remember vividly being in Montana when we were on tour one time when we did not play in Montana," he said. They stopped in Miles City because the bus driver needed to catch up on sleep, giving the band a day off. Mercer's grandmother and uncle came down to see them.
"My uncle took us out to lunch and then took to us to the car wash and then made all of the Shins get out and help him wash the car," he said. Since Mercer wasn't new to Montana, he wasn't fazed by the fact that his uncle had firearms in the glove box and center console. "My bandmates were just, like, shocked," he said with a laugh.
Mercer's father was in the Air Force, so the family moved around when he was growing up, including Hawaii and Europe. A new song, "Mildenhall," a country tune with a rolling rhythm, sketches out his life in England, where his father was stationed when Mercer was 15. It alludes to forming a teenage identity through pursuits like skateboarding and the innovative rock music of the time such as Jesus and Mary Chain. While hair-metal and hip-hop ruled the charts in the United States, in the U.K. young Mercer could walk into a Woolworths and pick up albums by the Smiths and Echo and the Bunnymen.
"It's kind of a nice, soft landing to make as I was approaching adulthood, England, I think. It made me feel cool," he said.
Asked if moving around had an effect on his artistic path, he offered some observations on the way it shaped him as a person.
"In some ways, I think it might have made me a healthier person because I was able to sort of reinvent myself here and there at certain stages of development in my life," he said.
On the other hand, it interfered with steady relationships.
"I remember in my 20s realizing, I just never really miss people. I can just go for (expletive) months without ever seeing somebody that I used to hang out with all the time, and I just wouldn't even notice that they were gone. I think that's not really normal. And I'm much less that way now, you know. But it was maybe a byproduct of that thing and moving around."
For this tour, Mercer said the band is playing a handful of new songs and a majority from his back catalog.
He said they initially played the full album, but his wife saw an early show and told him they needed more older songs.
He said he lets the current incarnation of the band go through the record and work through songs for the tour. The current line-up, many of whom play on the album, is Yuuki Matthews on bass, Jon Sortland on drums, Mark Watrous on guitar, keys and vocals, Casey Foubert on guitar and Patti King on keys.
Some older songs will appear in different forms than the original studio versions.
"We've experimented with some and didn't find an interesting new production and then others, like 'Gone for Good' is a very different song now. And I think, much better for it, so yeah, we're just messing around with some of the older ones for sure," he said.