Last year, Portland-based band The Shins released their fifth studio album, “Heartworms,” an eclectic mix of highly orchestrated songs that almost sounded effortless. But it wasn’t. Bandleader James Mercer spent five years in the studio toiling over the songs, producing all but one himself (the first time he’d carried the full producer title since 2001’s “Oh, Inverted World”).
After taking “Heartworms” on the road for a world tour, Mercer recently released a radical new version of the album, called “The Worm’s Heart.” He’s reversed the track order and inverted all the songs themselves, so that slow songs have become fast and fast ones slow; synths have flipped to guitar and vice versa.
Mercer says the new iterations were in part a result of opening the studio and the recording process up to the musicians he took on the road.
On where the idea of the flipped album originated:
James Mercer: My wife. I’m often at the kitchen table writing lyrics and working on songs in the morning, and she had fallen in love with the acoustic versions of these songs. As I was producing “Heartworms,” my record for Columbia records, she missed some of the original intimacy, so she had the idea of doing an acoustic version of all of the songs.
The problem was some of the songs on the album ended up being acoustic, and what do you do with those? So we decided to do everything in some sort of opposite fashion.
It’s an opportunity to mess around with things, and also, it’s more collaborative. You’ve got the material there, and you can just kind of play with it. And a lot of that is just the guys in the band are really strong players. So Yuuki Mathews, Mark Watrous and Jeremy Sherrer, these guys are really strong engineers, and I’m an amateur. So there is an increase in quality from “Heartworms” to “The Worm’s Heart” that you can hear.
On songs that turned out better on the flipped album:
James Mercer: I think the song “Heartworms,” as it’s changed, it turned into sort of an electronic song, and I think the song is more apparent. The sentiment is actually improved in the second version. “Name For You” is better as well, I think. A lot of them are. It’s crazy.
On the opening track, “The Fear,” which transformed from a yearning ballad of sorts to a kick-drum-driven rock number:
James Mercer: The idea behind that was Jon Sortland’s, the drummer. He came up with the idea of handling it like a Velvet Underground driver. And then Yuuki Mathews is playing guitar on that one, and he came up with a strange note, so he detuned the guitar to match a note we were finding on the piano, and everything just clicked after that. It was just one take.
The song on “Heartworms,” it’s a drum loop that I created. It’s sort of this monotonous, long trek and so this turned into a rock ‘n’ roll song.
On “Dead Alive,” a transformation that went from a jangly romp to a solemn existential ballad:
James Mercer: That was Mark Watrous on the piano — it just changed a lot. I wrote the song the way it sounds on “Heartworms,” on the first version. I thought that was what the song was all about, and then you hear that transformation. That song is my manager’s favorite version on the new record.
I guess I feel a sense of bravado. It’s kind of cool these songs can be approached in a totally different way and they still work. I don’t think it say anything good about my production skills that they’re often improved.
On the ongoing transformation of The Shins:
James Mercer: I realized, recently, that this project started in a bedroom, you know — me with a four-track — and had a number of different people before we ever got signed. The first time we played live, we were a two-piece: It was just drums and guitar and me singing. It’s always been a bunch of weird things. It’s always been sort of a moniker that I’ve used for what I consider the pop music that I write.
In the last few years, I got tired of the earnestness that has become really popular — this sort of attempt at earnestness. I wanted to have fun again. I’ve been listening to bands like Ariel Pink and Mac DeMarco. There’s a sense of humor there that I feel like we lost along the way somewhere.
It’s funny, because I think The Shins started at an attempt at being earnest. I wanted to go back to the stuff that I had fallen in love with in the ‘80s, The Smiths and Echo & The Bunnymen — these bands that I thought there was this passion there. And then in the ‘90s, if you remember, it was very tongue-in-cheek, and indie rock was very snarky. So I was kind of rebelling against that when I started this band, and now I want to go back to that.
On what’s next:
James Mercer: I am kind of chilling out. I’m going to be working with Brian Burton [aka Danger Mouse] on a record that he’s producing for another band. Maybe we’ll get around to some Broken Bells stuff. We already have some stuff in the works.
Honestly, it’s been a year and a half of touring, and I feel like it’s my first week of summer vacation.