James Mercer has been doing his amiably anxious alt-pop nice-guy thing since the Shins’ strummy-sad 2001 debut, Oh, Inverted World, expanding his sound without diluting his signature shy intimacy. Last time out, on 2012’s great Port of Morrow, Adele producer Greg Kurstin helped give Mercer’s world-weary melodicism a sleek polish. Heartworms has more of a home-brewed feel, heavy on Beach Boys grandeur, New Wave kicks, squiggly synth-pop and warm-weather soft rock – with lyrics tenderly balanced between midlife malaise and youthful romanticism. The result is some of most charming music he’s ever made.
Crisply buoyant album opener “Name For You” is a sharp assessment of Betty Draper-style womanhood (“it’s a bland kind of torture”). Elsewhere, the lightly psychedelic “Fantasy Island” finds Mercer with tortures of his own, nose-deep in vermouth and self-pity. But his solipsism has always been as gentle as his melodies; “Mildenhall,” a country-ish recollection of a family relocation to England and the first flush of love with “a band called the Jesus & the Mary Chain,” is one of several moments that leverage childhood memories toward adult realization. And when the spacey slow dance “So Now What” finds faith in the future via an ode to marriage, midlife as an alt-pop nice guy starts seeming like an OK gig.