Broken Bells is the side project of the indie-mastermind James Mercer, frontman to The Shins, and uber producer Brian Burton, better known as Danger Mouse. Danger Mouse most notably scored what Rolling Stone magazine called “the best song of the 2000s,” with “Crazy,” a track he recorded with CeeLo Green in the duo Gnarls Barkley. Broken Bells’ sophomore effort After the Disco is exactly what it feels like: a side project.
In Mercer’s main role as the last original member of The Shins, he creates earnest, mellow guitar music. In Burton’s most prominent work-which decidedly was his stint with Gnarls Barley-he blended his electronic production with the soulful vocals of Green. Both projects work spectacularly well. With Broken Bells, the duo tries to combine all of these talents, and the result is what’s no more than a side of vegetables awkwardly on the same plate as the meat and potato-type careers of the two.
After the Discois a much more cohesive and interconnected album than Broken Bells’ self-titled debut. For many bands, this would be a positive attribute, but here it is a detriment. Each song on the album blends into the others, anchored by the synths and Mercer’s vocals. The synth layering lacks the poppy dubstep-dropping choruses that often create the tension that great synth-driven pop thrives on. As a result, Broken Bells fails to reach the greatness of its European counterpart Daft Punk. Similarly,After The Disco lacks the dark danceable ascetic of Nine Inch Nails or even its predecessor Joy Division.
Broken Bells is effectively in the middle-it does little to elate and even less to ruminate in the darkness of a steady backbeat. It is an apathetic synth-pop group. This apathy is further enhanced by Mercer’s emotionless vocals, barely changing from track to track, and it is smothered by the lo-fi production and instrumentation of Burton. At least in these two things, Burton shows some of the experimental side that earned him the moniker of a “legendary producer.”
“A Perfect World,” the opener to the record, starts with a thumping and entrancing beat that sustains throughout the song, but nothing in the song seems to match its initial excitement. “Perfect World” bleeds undoubtedly into the next track, which happens to be most boring song on the record. The record’s title track, “After the Disco,” does nothing with its synth parts other than provide sound.
The best song on the album is its first single, “Holding on for Life,” which is the only to mix all of the ingredients that the duo wants into a magical bite-sized pop song. The track starts with the sounds of a theremin, the instrument that became synonymous with alien activity on ’60s TV shows like The Twilight Zone. This sound permeates the song, along with guitar and drums, giving the song an interesting sonic flavor. The star of the song, however, is Mercer’s vocals, which are finally pushed to the forefront of production. The album on the whole is a more melancholic interpretation of the ’70s super group sound. The Bee Gees, however, were not afraid of a hook (whether that be a soaring chorus, guitar riff, or both) to truly pop production. Broken Bells, on the other hand, seems to be intent on drowning every catchy and memorable part of its music in overproduced moments and pretentiousness sounds, marginalizing elements of the record like the interesting guitar part on its title track and the sincerely catchy ah-ahs in “Lazy Wonderland.”
After a disco, there should be no letdown. It was Tony Montero, after all, who used to strut after his nights out. On the title track, Mercer laments that, “After the disco / All the shine just fades away.” There’s hardly a more prophetic statement to be made about his music.