ALBUM: After the Disco
ARTIST: Broken Bells
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”