By Madison Vain
Updated December 21, 2016 at 05:28 PM EST
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Credit: Brian Feinzimer/WireImage

Eighteen months ago, Shins leader James Mercer holed up in the converted carriage-house studio of his Portland, Oregon, home to begin work on his group’s anticipated fifth album. After collaborating with Grammy-winning producer Greg Kurstin (Adele, Sia) and enduring a lineup change for 2012’s Port of Morrow, Mercer had one specific goal this time. “I wanted to do something more handmade,” says the 45-year-old. “I wanted to get back into the production and engineering side of the work as well as the writing.”

With Mercer’s vision firmly established, he has created the Shins’ most adventurous album yet: The record’s 11 tracks veer wildly from dense, Beach Boys-style arrangements and arpeggiated synthesizer melodies to breezy country-tinged balladry. The dynamics surprised even the frontman. “There are traditional pop themes that I elaborate on on this record,” he says. “I think that’s, to me, the most surprising [thing].” It’s not all upbeat and cheery, though: “There’s still a lot of the same dark stuff, though,” Mercer says. “Never fear.”

Mercer, who also produced the still-untitled set, had such fun experimenting that he says the band — including new touring guitarist Mark Watrous — recorded alternate versions of each track, “[just] to see what might happen.” He says, “It turned out the songs were cool either way. So, production is important, but songwriting still rules the day.”

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Hear “Dead Alive” off the album below.

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