Review: Broken Bells’ album, ‘After the Disco’
Broken Bells is a duo that should have never happened. James Mercer, frontman for critically acclaimed indie-rock outfit The Shins, lives in Portland, Ore. He’s achieved quiet success through his band, equipped with a uniquely Portland-esque sound: velvety, smart and bubbly, but not too bubbly. He’s an indie dude who makes indie music in arguably the U.S.’s most indie-rich city.
He’s also the same guy that teamed up with Brian Burton (stage name Danger Mouse), a mammoth of a Los Angeles-based music producer. Known primarily as a man of hip-hop, Burton’s worked with the likes of Cee Lo Green and Jemini. In fact, he’s the man behind Gnarls Barkley, Cee Lo’s original act before he decided to go solo. He opened up for an OutKast show, too. He should never have teamed up with Mercer, but boy, is it a great thing that he did.
Broken Bells is a collaborative effort between Mercer and Danger Mouse, and the duo’s debut eponymous album was both fantastic and directionless. It was filled to the brim with hazy synth loops and some gorgeously dreary lyrics. It was nominated for a Grammy in 2011 for Best Alternative Music Album, but it just wasn’t there yet. It was gorgeous, and its swirling, dense fog of bloopy beats made the album an awesome listen.
But, again, it just wasn’t there yet. Mercer and Burton put forth an ambitious first effort, but they were capable of more.
“After the Disco,” Broken Bells’ 2014 follow-up, is proof of that. It’s a cohesive, tightly knit unit of tracks with unified lyrical themes. However, “After the Disco” isn’t a statement of how Mercer and Burton have finally mastered the art of complimentary composition — rather, the two have learned to keenly and cohesively blend their distinctive techniques.
The album starts up with an exhausted Mercer in the six-minute opener, “Perfect World,” his words dripping with brash melancholy: “I’ve got nothing left/It’s kind of wonderful, ‘cause there’s nothing they can take away.” It’s a flawlessly executed introduction to a long-awaited album. Mercer, an old pal, is giving you the run-down; a blunt disclaimer of how his life has changed since you last saw him. He unashamedly lays it all out on the table — basically, he’s lost a lost, he’s a little hardened from it, and this is who he is. This is the kind of album you’re getting into.
What’s unusual about this album is how cohesive it is, though it’s also simultaneously split; “split” being used in the most literal sense. More than a handful of the tracks seem to be divided into two distinctive parts. These parts aren’t necessarily halves, and they still manage to blend together seamlessly within the track. There’s certainly an interplay of genres in this album, though. It’s just that, on “After the Disco,” the two genres seem to be getting along a little better.
What makes “After the Disco”’s effort more successful than “Broken Bells” is that this interplay of genres doesn’t leave the taste of something unfinished in the listener’s mouth. The influence of Broken Bells’ two wildly contrasting genres isn’t going away anytime soon. If “Broken Bells” was an album written by a Shins frontman and a hip-hop producer trying to become one united musical act, “After the Disco” was written by Broken Bells, a united musical act.
Truthfully, it takes listening to “After the Disco” to realize how advanced it is in comparison to “Broken Bells.” Only by comparing the two does it become obvious that “After the Disco” is an immense improvement for the duo.
Take “Holding on for Life,” for example. It’s a textbook disco-rock track, opening up with groovy keynotes, throbbing bass and, in true Broken Bells fashion, an acoustic guitar — a nod to Mercer and Burton’s past influences. The track flows along, it glitters and it gleams.
With a minute and a half to go, though, an electric guitar rips through the gates, tearing out eerily mismatched notes. The disco grooves pause, let the guitar do its thing and then sweep back in. Despite all odds, the meshing works. It’s undeniably cool and well-executed, exactly what’s demanded from a collaboration of two contrasting veteran artists.
“Control,” another example of this, starts out an emotion-laden alternative track as Mercer begs his lover to try to relinquish her control. Its instrumentals are ominous, backed up with a subtle padding of orchestral strings and brooding, deep electric guitar strums. The chorus feels urgent — it’s as if the subject’s life depends on learning to let go of control in her life. All of this sinister energy swirls around like a black cloud — and then, out of nowhere, Burton sweeps in with swelling horns and persistent, foot-stomping percussion.
And yet it works. It’s not as if Burton was interrupting Mercer’s brooding. He was complementing it, adding in a new flavor to the track that somehow still rang true to the theme of urgent action in “Control.” Mercer does the same thing in “Medicine,” sidestepping his way into Burton’s hip-hop bass line with less than a minute left in the track. Out comes The Shins — er, Mercer — with an acoustic guitar, gentle piano pats and an echoing accordion.
Overall, the album is gorgeously composed and filled to the brim with rich, sweeping melodies and grooves. On “After the Disco,” Mercer and Burton embrace their stylistic differences up-front. Instead of trying to fit into the cookie cutters of each other’s respective genres, they’ve thrown out the recipe altogether and created a swirling concoction far more satisfying than its predecessor.