The Shins’ new album, Heartworms, contains a beautiful song called Mildenhall, which tells of American founder James Mercer’s teenage epiphany with pop when his father was stationed at RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk. “A kid in class passed me a tape of a band called the Jesus and Mary Chain,” Mercer sings. “I started messing with my dad’s guitar / He taught me some chords just to start me off / Whittling away on all of those rainy days / And that’s how we get to where we are now.”
Where they are now is packing out one of Manchester’s larger venues. Much has changed since the Shins’ 2001 debut, Oh, Inverted World, revitalised the label Sub Pop and became a huge-selling classic. New Slang became a hit by stealth after Zach Braff’s film Garden State had Natalie Portman hand Braff’s character some headphones, saying: “You got to hear this song. It’ll change your life.” Five albums in, Mercer is the only original Shin, and instrumentation here includes a synthesiser and two violins. But like Mark E Smith’s the Fall, the constant factor in a gradually metamorphosing lineup is the singer.
“Manchester, again!” Mercer begins, not saying much else all night beyond revealing that he prepared for the show in the bar next door. He doesn’t need to. The songs are greeted like old friends: perfect, hooky pop constructions in which he sings of life’s minor (and occasionally major) struggles. “I’m feeling loose and my life don’t make sense / I use my brains to make a fence,” Mercer croons in Half a Million. The Fear addresses his struggles with depression and anxiety with piercing frankness: “You look into my eyes, but don’t really recognise me any more.” Whatever the themes, they are all delivered with joie de vivre and fizzy energy – brisker than on record – and induce euphoria in the audience.
The crowd clapalongs start in the fourth song, Mine’s Not a High Horse. Arms sway in Simple Song, and the crowd sing along with every “la la la” and “whoah whoah whoah”. By the end of New Slang, they have become a huge a capella choir, which seems to leave the singer thrilled and humbled. All these years after his epiphany, this gig is the Shins’ career in microcosm: one man’s journey has become a warm, communal celebration of the power of song.
• At Rock City, Nottingham, tonight. Box office: 0115-958 8484.