In Brief: A little more hit and less miss than the duo’s debut. Burton’s keyboards and production do an excellent job of keeping Mercer from sounding too sullen, while Mercer’s down-to-earth approach keeps Burton from drifting too far off into sonic Candyland.
It’s inevitable that whatever Broken Bells puts out will get compared to The Shins. I did so myself when I reviewed Broken Bells’ self-titled debut, probably ruffling the feathers of a few James Mercer devotees in the process by saying I liked that album better than anything The Shins had done so far. Let’s be honest – the comparison wouldn’t even get made if both bands didn’t share a frontman. When the guy two bands have in common isn’t the one singing, you don’t generally think to make such comparisons. Just because Brian Burton (better known as Danger Mouse) is the other half of the duo doesn’t mean that comparisons to Gnarls Barkley are gonna make a whole lot of sense. (Even if they do, someone else is gonna have to make ’em, because I’ve heard two Gnarls Barkley songs at most.) All I can say with certainty is that I sorta figured Broken Bells would be a one-off, an interesting diversion for fans of those other two projects waiting for new material to come along. I didn’t realize that their debut (which had its charms and very slowly grew on me, but which I don’t look back at as some sort of a landmark record or anything) had gotten them enough traction to make working together again a viable option for the two men. So it was a nice surprise to see them giving it another go when they dropped After the Disco early this year. Apparently the time spent together left its mark on Mercer, who was already starting to tinker with more electronic sounds on The Shins’ Wincing the Night Away, but who really surprised me with a few of the more groove-driven tracks on 2012’s Port of Morrow. He pretty much is The Shins at this point, which might beg the question of why he should bother working under two different monikers any more. I’m still of the opinion that Broken Bells is where he gets to let loose and have more fun, and that Burton is a great facilitator for that side of his personality.
After the Disco, much like its predecessor, is one of those albums that doesn’t wow me right away, but that I’ve come back to an awful lot as the months have gone by since its release. Burton’s habit of layering catchy-as-hell drum and bass bits and vintage keyboards on top of Mercer’s dour crooning seems to bring out the best in both artists. While I never get the feeling that their candy-coated indie-retro sound is aiming for world domination, there’s an appealing sense of modesty to it, as if they never lose sight of the fact that it’s an experiment and their widely divergent tastes are going to push and pull and mold the music in unpredictable ways. Their debut was a bit all over the place due to that, though it never strayed into avant-garde territory. And I wouldn’t say that sound has gotten a drastic makeover here, but it does feel like the duo has shored up a few of their own weaknesses. First and foremost, they seemed to have learned how to load up all of their heavy-hitters right at the front of an album. I would say that the first five or six songs on this one are easily one of the most solid front halves of an indie rock record that I’ve heard in recent years. Mercer’s habit of delivering a punchy chorus in his irresistible falsetto has a lot to do with it, but there’s great variety within that handful of songs, from the epic-length opening anthem to a few dance/pop oriented singles to what might just be the duo’s first genuine home run in the mellow ballad department. Things do get a bit patchy in the back half, though they only border on truly skippable in one or two cases – elsewhere the only flaw is that you can sort of see a template emerging for their “default sound” on a few songs. That’s a significant improvement over the long middle section of their debut record that I struggled to listen through only because I knew the delicious one-two punch of “Mongrel Heart” and “The Mall and Misery” awaited at the end. And while there’s nothing quite that epic for the guys to finish on here, I’d say it’s probably better to start strong if you had to pick either a solid beginning or an amazing ending.
And while Mercer isn’t the kind of guy whose mildly pained ramblings I could ever hope to fully understand, I feel like his songwriting has gotten closer to a sense of balance than it was before. More often than not on past albums, I felt like he was hell-bent on bumming me out. Not in an overt, mad-at-the-world, protest-song kind of way, but just in a defeated, “Well, the world just sorta sucks and what are you gonna do?” sort of way. It might just be that my perception of him as a person has softened over the years (I went through the same process with Win Butler from Arcade Fire), but I feel like the production values and mostly upbeat tempos on this album do a lot to wring that little glimmer of hope from some of his weary observations. He verbally acknowledges a bit of optimism here and there, too. So while I wouldn’t necessarily say that you should listen to this record for a good pick-me-up when you’re down, I think it’s enjoyable on a good or at least so-so day, for that mix of the morose and the chipper.
1. Perfect World
There aren’t many Broken Bells tracks that I’d describe as “feel-good”, even when the music is fun to listen to. But this peppy little synthpop number, which proudly comes marching in with its video game-like keyboards tromping all over the place, somehow manages to wring victory out of a crushing defeat. “I’ve got nothing left, it’s kind of wonderful”, Mercer sings in the opening verse, “‘Cause there’s nothing they can take away.” The song feels like the dawn of a new chapter in your life after the last one closed on you abruptly and miserably – Mercer is honest about how he was too naively optimistic in the past (“I thought love would always find a way”), but still seems optimistic that things will ultimately work out for good despite those crushed dreams (“But I know better now/Got it figured out/It’s a perfect world all the same”). He unleashes a fun little guitar solo in the bridge, and just when you think the song is winding down with one mellow final verse, Burton’s drums kick in again and the song goes around for one more lap. At six and a half minutes, this is the duo’s longest track so far, but it doesn’t hurt the flow of the album in the slightest to start off with this one. It’s a complete triumph.
2. After the Disco
You can just tell from the title that they’re going to flirt with retro dance music on this one. It’s so obvious it sort of makes me want to do a facepalm, but they pull it off in a fun and believable enough way that I can’t really complain. For one thing, not all of the obvious disco tropes are there. Burton’s got the booming bass and the bump-hiss of the symbals down pat, and Mercer sings a stellar falsetto chorus like he wants to be one of the Bee Gees, but the keyboards are dripping with indie-pop irony to the point where I can’t tell if they’re kind and cuddly or shrill and subversive. “After the Disco” is a pretty good metaphor for what it feels like after the glitz and glamour of a fun but phony experience funally wears off, and it’s that downcast feeling that this song seeks to explore.
3. Holding on For Life
One of the hardest things for me as a reviewer is when I feel like a song has discovered brilliance in its simplicity, and then I have to explain why. I just feel like I can never do it justice without making such a song sound completely ordinary. But I’ll spare the existential crisis over whether writing about music is a futile endeavor for another day and just try to do the best I can. There’s something about the more urban bass line of this song, and how it combines with the everyman acoustic guitar strum and the theremin/moog/whatever the hell that creepy sound is, that just seems as natural and peanut butter and jelly. The chorus is repetitive, for sure, but Mercer’s falsetto renders me helpless to resist singing along. The lyrics are apparently directed at a down-and-out woman who is either a prostitute, or just someone who settles for a lot less than she should when it comes to relationships. Not particularly happy subject matter, but the chorus seems to root for her to hang on for something more meaningful, rather than to condemn her.
4. Leave It Alone
I was so down on the slower songs on Broken Bells’ last record that this one truly took me by surprise. I thought from the slow, lo-fi, jangly guitar intro that this was going to be another one of those turgid ballads that I’d just sort of have to be patient through. But then there’s this chorus of voices that puts a total strangelehold on my brain, immediately highlighting the fact that they’ve come up with a brilliant chorus melody and they’re gonna milk it for all it’s worth. Catchiness isn’t the only thing this song’s got to offer, though. As depressing James Mercer lyrics go, this is one of his best, as he sings with resignation to someone he cared for who has walked away from him, almost sounding like a bitter father who realizes his child will have to learn for themselves the hard lessons that he hoped to teach them about the big, cruel world out there. When the voices all come back in for the chorus, it becomes a thing of tragic, haunting beauty, with the restraint shown elsewhere in the song making that big, climactic moment tower menacingly over the listener. Top it off with a bit of a Jack White-inspired guitar solo, and you’ve got a breakout hit that busts a lot of my preconceived notions about what kind of music these two guys could make together.
5. The Changing Lights
I’ve been puzzling over this one for a while, and I’m still not sure I’ve figured it out. Amidst some of Burton’s best drum and bass work on the album, and a melody that deliciously zig-zags its way through another confident, memorable chorus, there seems to be a character who is struggling to make a decision between light and dark: “You want to walk in white/You want to sin, but you’re too shy.” Mercer seems to be criticizing this person for not taking a stand either way, as if to say that their indecision keeps them from living either sense of “the good life”. This one probably won’t stand out to as many people as the string of four singles that opened the record, but it’s definitely one of my favorites.
This one sounds like the typical Broken Bells template song at first – kinda funky beat, little funk-inflected stabs of guitar, reasonably danceable groove. It was a good track but not a highlight for me, until I started to appreciate how the horn section that comes in midway through really takes charge of the song. It’s really fitting for a sassy song about how a person who gets high on feeling like she’s in charge of every situation is gradually losing control of everything. There’s more than a hint of sadomasochism in the lyrics, but the song draws a pretty clear line between a game played by lovers and the sort of cold-hearted manipulation that it turned into when that mentality escaped beyond the bedroom.
7. Lazy Wonderland
This is where things go horribly wrong. After the Disco was destined for five-star status up until it hit this horrendous little speed bump. All of the impatience that I felt during tracks like “Citizen” and “Float” on their last album comes roaring back here, when a lazily poking-along-through-the-countryside sort of melody collides with dreamy kids-show synths, and the whole thing just sounds like a big constipated mess. They really do try to develop it into some sort of Beatles-inspired light psychedelia once the drums and backing vocals come in, but making it weird doesn’t make it any more listenable. The lagging pace of the song is what kills it. They’ve demonstrated on “Leave It Alone” that they can knock it out of the park even at slow speeds, so there’s really no excuse for this one.
At this point, you’re familiar with the bass-driven, synth-supported backbeats that drive the typical Broken Bells song, so I can’t pretend there’s a whole lot different happening here. Even the subject matter gets a tad repetitive – as much as I love the line “You think hurting gives you license to do anything at all” (and especially how the mocking background vocals echo it), it seems to be mining similar themes to the abusive relationships explored in earlier songs. This one’ll still get your head bobbing. And the way it fades out into a twinkling, starry dreamscape at the end is a nice surprise.
9. No Matter What You’re Told
Is that upright bass I’m hearing? My ears might be deceiving me, but either way, Burton’s got no shortage of solid bass licks on this album. It keeps things fun even though the pattern’s grown predictable. The little string/keyboard hits in this one help to emphasize its defiant tone, as it seeks to dismantle the hubris of some person who’s let their ego get way out of hand. Once again, the backing vocals are used to great effect – they’re possibly pitch-shifted, giving them a sinister, sneering sort of tone that permeates the chorus of the song.
10. The Angel and the Fool
This song’s slower drum loop and its rich but sad acoustic melody give me the mental image of a character ambling down a dark alley, mere minutes before sunrise. This one’s quite strong on mood, but its melody doesn’t take hold for me as easily, so admittedly I haven’t paid as close attention to it as some of the other tracks on the album. Lyrically, it seems to have caught up with the character from “Holding on For Life”, finding her at a dark moment of despair where she’s so crushed by the ways she’s been used and manipulated by others that she’s ready to end it all. Mercer still has a soft spot for her, promising “I won’t ever let her give up”. This would seem to imply that she’s the angel and he’s the fool.
11. The Remains of Rock & Roll
With a track title like this at the end of the album, I can’t help but think of Fiction Family singing about “The ashes of rock & roll” at the end of their last record. This is the moment where Mercer leaves the dying after-party and say goodbye to all of the sad scenesters, finally striking up the courage to ask his beat-down angel if she’s willing to join him for the ride. Musically, it’s a bit of an uneasy note for the album to end on, as it tries out more of a syncopated triple meter (only time I can recall Broken Bells breaking out of 4/4 aside from “Sailing to Nowhere”), but the way Burton plays it on the bass, it still comes across a bit stiff. Still, it has a different feel than most of the album, so if you’ve been tuning out because things had gotten predictable, hopefully this one will get your attention. Mercer seems to come back to the opening track’s philosophy of letting the soiled dreams and disappointments of the past all disintegrate as he sings, “Is something wrong?/You don’t look like you’re having fun/The road is long/Got to let go of the things you’ve done.” Those aren’t the final words of the song, but for me, they’re the definitive closing statement of the album.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Perfect World $2
After the Disco $1.25
Holding on For Life $1.50
Leave It Alone $2
The Changing Lights $1.75
Lazy Wonderland –$.25
No Matter What You’re Told $.75
The Angel and the Fool $.50
The Remains of Rock & Roll $.75
James Mercer: Vocals, guitars
Brian Burton (a.k.a. Danger Mouse): Drums, keys, programming
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: