Broken Bells - After the Disco

Broken Bells return with a second full length, a sound but pedestrian offering.

Additional Info

5.5

ALBUM: After the Disco

ARTIST: Broken Bells

2014

Alternative

You already know that Broken Bells is Brian Burton (Danger Mouse) and James Mercer (The Shins). You already know that Burton and Mercer are responsible for songs that have helped chart indie music in the 21st century—Gnarls Barkley’s infinitely infectious “Crazy”, and (despite its awful Zach Braff force-feeding) “New Slang” by The Shins. You already know that the first time Burton and Mercer came together as Broken Bells in 2010, their debut contained several solid tracks that sounded different yet still canonical to each’s past output (e.g. “The Ghost Inside”, “Vaporize”). What you might not know, especially after listening to After the Disco, is why, after four years, the two men decided to return to the project.

Whereas songs from their eponymous album revolved around psych ‘n roll instrumentation—fuzzy guitar, piano, trumpets, trap kit drums, and a heap of space imagery—After the Disco sticks mainly to the retro dance plane where Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories wowed us last year. Very early into Disco, the listener discovers that it was those organic elements that made Broken Bells a worthwhile endeavor. The loose last-call jam of “Citizen” from Broken Bells elicits more emotion and comes off much more assured than the laughable mechanical outro of Disco’s “Control.” While indietronica has been the focus of Burton’s best work (DangerDoom, Gnarls Barkley’s St. Elsewhere), the complete shift for Broken Bells seems to have evaporated the band’s impetus. The calculated atmosphere of Disco constricts the band into a joyless realm where the duo seems lost, which is particularly peculiar given their pedigrees. With their past spontaneity removed, Broken Bells ring hollow.

In a recent interview with the L.A. Times, as Burton was gazing into the night sky at Griffith Observatory, he delivered the platitudinous, “It's kind of freeing to look up and think about how small we are. You realize that it doesn’t matter what we all do.” While I may have a soft spot for tenth grade stoner logic, I have to disagree with him—when a high profile artist is asking others to endure his work, it definitely matters. Broken Bells’ first record sold half a million copies; many people obviously connected with it. While there’s little doubt that this record will sell, it’s difficult to detect any sense of the band moving into something more than they were before. In that same interview, Mercer added his two cents, which inadvertently shed a bit of light on Disco, “This time, I didn’t have to live up to something. It was so laid-back.” That sentiment is ironically reflected in the album’s barely-trying moments.

That’s not to say that After the Disco is a total miss. Many of the plentiful hooks are pleasant enough earworms (the title track, “Holding On for Life”), and the quality of the musicianship is still (mostly) solid. Disco is a competent album—but that’s not enough. We’ve seen many flashes of brilliance from both Mercer and Burton, and Broken Bells’ self-titled contained conceptual, experimental tracks where it made full sense that these guys were collaborating (revisit the mariachi waltz on “Mongrel Heart” for a reminder). On Disco, the right notes are in the right places, but these songs never escape feeling perfunctory; there’s often an uninspired, listless quality haunting them. That has a lot to do with Mercer’s half-there vocal delivery, but the accompanying musical landscapes often feel flat compared to some of Burton’s other work. A track like “I Got Mine” on the Burton-produced Black Keys’ Attack and Release packs solvent energy into the space between the notes; compare that to Disco’s opening track “A Perfect World,” where initial teases of vigor are squashed by a needlessly long track-length and schlocky production strokes that could have easily come from a late night of messing with a bong and GarageBand.

Another frustration is the album’s lyrics. While Broken Bells’s lyrics were sometimes guilty of nondescript suggestions of seriousness (see the indistinctly “political” hit “The High Road”), Disco is infested with lyrical clunkers that don’t refer to anything. Take “Medicine”: “It’s a wonder anyone can breathe here/ with a smoke too thick to cough/ so we’re falling as we run for cover from/ the bombs we’re setting off.” Or, the nauseating titular lines from “The Remains of Rock and Roll”: “We prefer good love to gold/ and the remains of rock and roll.” Holding true to the album’s “party’s over” aesthetic, every track is guilty of the same kind of vague philosophizing that comes at closing time, but when its backed by the disparate dance music, the conceit collapses under its own confusion.

In the end, the resultant question is, “Why another Broken Bells album?” It’s not a question often fair to ask artists, but, at times, After the Disco seems to beg it. This is especially true on the later tracks, where there’s barely a memorable piece in place. The question is not demoralizing in this case, because Mercer and Burton both are wildly successful elsewhere, and we know them to still be capable of making really solid, compelling music. The Shins returned to form with 2012’s Port of Morrow; Burton never stopped producing strong albums (the collaborative Dark Night of the Soul w/ Sparklehorse, Beck’s Modern Guilt), and has his hand in upcoming efforts from U2 and Frank Ocean. Perhaps the Broken Bells collaboration is fun—which is fair enough for Mercer and Burton—but After the Disco never translates that to the listener. On the contrary, the album shows that after the disco ends, it’s really quite a slog.

“Don’t tell me it’s not our time”

1. A Perfect World
The opening seconds of the track build anticipation like the score of the scene just before “the big race” in movie x. Then, electronic drums drop, the twinkly synth line provides a hummable melody, but Mercer’s voice makes him sound…bored. He’s singing the right notes, but their delivery is lazy and clashes with the upbeat energy of the music. The anthemic chorus does little to resurrect the song, as does a rudimentary fuzzy guitar solo (it’s a touchstone of Danger Mouse production, but out of place here). The song drags on for three more minutes than it should with little variation breaking the monotony. In that way, the first track is emblematic of the entire album, as there’s very little to warrant the song’s length, and, unfortunately, another album by Broken Bells. 5.5
2. After the Disco
A hip little dance number, vaguely reminiscent of something from Random Access Memories without the retro-made-fresh innovation. Mercer pushes his vocals in interesting (albeit not always successful) ways, sliding notes and jumping octaves. He slips in and out of falsetto smoothly and keeps the song’s momentum from fully dissipating. A textured synth fills out an already engorged chorus. It’s easy to imagine this song in a gaudy, overly perfumed ‘80’s club, cascading lights flashing on the coked out patrons. It’s a spectacle of a song—and still right at home on current top-40 radio—and it’s also the high point on a low-reaching album.7.5
3. Holding on for Life
The album’s first single has a theremin hook, which is a testament that Danger Mouse still has some worthwhile tricks up his producing sleeve. The song is a successful mix of ‘80’s new wave in the vein of Tears For Fears’ “Head Over Heels,” and late-70’s glitzy soul. The problem becomes too many jagged-edged elements competing for space. Though Mercer does a pretty good Barry Gibb impression for the chorus, the song is once again dragged down by languid vocals during the verses. I wish Mercer would take advice from his own lyrics: “Trying not to look so young and miserable/ you gotta get your kicks while you can.” 6.0
4. Leave It Alone
A capoed acoustic guitar picks a pretty melody while a chorus of voices builds behind. The multi-voiced chorus here is interesting, but quickly becomes tedious when it reappears on other tracks. Mercer’s solo vocals are also powerful on this track—fat, tinged with grit, and foregrounded. It’s reminiscent of their self-titled record (specifically, “Vaporize”), when emotion wasn’t an afterthought in a Broken Bells song. Burton’s production—sequenced keys, the gospel choir chorus—pushes the song beyond a throwaway. Though it loses all steam by its deflated end, it’s still one of the strongest tracks.7.0
5. The Changing Lights
This song feels like it should have been the actual outro of “Leave It Alone.” The two songs’ melodies are very similar, the same vocal effects are employed, the same multi-choral chorus quickly becoming tired shtick. The driving, tribal-like electronic drums here carry much more momentum than the actual outro of “Leave It Alone.” The sameness of the preceding track leaves a bitter taste when Mercer sings, “You gotta measure the cost/ What have you gained? / And what have you lost?” The answer to the former is nothing, the latter is time.5.5
6. Control
The song contains whiffs of Burton’s work in Gnarls Barkley—the drums are crisp, the fuzzed-out guitar interlude is engaging. At this point on the album, a weak hook isn’t a surprise, but when it’s as numbing as, “You gotta give it up/ give it up/ give it up/ oh, oh, oh,” it’s a bit aggravating. Mercer follows it up with,"Cuz nothing stands around too long,” and it almost seems like a terrible self-aware joke. To really make the listener ponder that last line, the thrift store Casio keyboard-sounding horn outro is laughably bungling.3.5
7. Lazy Wonderland
The song reflects its name. Aspiring to be a wondrous dreamscape, the track comes off as bored and somnolent, and only gets halfway to something evocative. The melody sounds a bit like a dime-store version of the Beatles’ “I’ve Got a Feeling,” and any momentum the song may have quickly dissolves under its conflicting whimsy/somber moods (unlike the happy/sad tension between John and Paul in the Beatles’ tune).4.5
8. Medicine
A trebly picked electric guitar line and tight electronic drums give this track an aura of Violator-era Depeche Mode. However, the verses are thin, populated only by vocals and drums not strong enough to carry the song. Again, a truly comical choice derails any promise of a solid track; in this case, the back-up vocals accenting Mercer reek of cheese.4.0
9. No Matter What You’re Told
The song could be a castoff from Wincing the Night Away by The Shins. The track’s intriguing staccato melody is plagued again by accents from a fake sounding horn section. It’s astonishing that Burton left such shoddy, hollow sounds in the mix. The song’s playfulness comes off as glib, and the nugatory lyrics about an unnamed menace haunting humanity fall flat. Though, it is a pleasure to hear the theremin again in the background. 4.5
10. The Angel and the Fool
An acoustic guitar plays a descending chord progression over a loud electronic pulse. Mercer’s vocals here are assured and his performance sound. The song succeeds in creating a mildly mysterious landscape about a woman in trouble. A choral of child-like voices provides the chorus harmonies; that, coupled with the song’s whistled bridge, quickly makes it feel like we’re stuck at a high school musical. The song abruptly stops where it could keep going for another minute or so, but I’m thankful it doesn’t.5.0
11. The Remains of Rock and Roll
The last track quickly builds keys and acoustic guitar into an overpowering orchestral arrangement, a stock trick in Danger Mouse’s stable. The song mixes many elements—layers of wobbly keys and sound effects over a thin guitar—creating a strange amalgamation that doesn’t ever gel. Mercer stumbles on some grainy notes in his overblown falsetto chorus, and intrusive drums obfuscate any prettiness the string orchestra creates. The album ends with a sing-along that recalls a line of people holding hands and singing at a candlelit vigil, mourning the loss of someone they knew had more in them.4.0
Michael McDermit is an artist living in Oregon. He is a contributing member of the My Idea of Fun artist collective and currently teaches writing and literature at the University of Oregon.



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