Broken Bells – After The Disco

by Miles Rowland

A solid and, on occasion, inspired second outing from this unlikely super-duo which borrows retro disco vibes and infuses them with the feeling of struggling through a hangover.

Broken Bells, that is Brian Burton a.k.a. Danger Mouse, together with James Mercer of Shins fame, have proved with the mere release of this second album that they are keen to elevate to something beyond a side project. One of the most satisfying elements of their debut and for much of After The Disco is how the differing styles of the two members are somehow combined into an eclectic and unusual sound which doesn’t feel forced in the slightest. However, there are some points in this album where it does feel slightly laboured and the melodies don’t flow quite as they should. These moments are only noticeable because of the sheer brilliance that surrounds them.

Danger Mouse’s influence behind the dials is immediately clear in Perfect World, where layer upon layer of synths take the forefront, before bass and drums make the intro feel more frenetic and restless. The addition of Mercer’s vocals make it increasingly clear that the song’s title is bitterly ironic. After a catchy chorus, an electric guitar solo marks a change of beat: a slower acoustic finale to this album opener. The band’s evolution into new textures is further explored in the title track, which comes the closest to fulfilling the mention of ‘Disco’ in the album name; the fast-paced Broken Bells blasts into another unexpectedly memorable chorus: “How did I get into this winding maze of love?” Mercer asks us. Recurrently, this album doesn’t explore the fun of partying without a care, but instead the state of puzzling over what occurred the night before with the beat of the club still sickeningly resounding in the ears. Holding On For Life, a sort of Another Day In Paradise for a new generation, follows the tragic life of a prostitute in the Latin Quarter of Paris. On the other hand, the song’s rhythmic-acoustic intro and James Mercer’s impossibly high-pitched Bee Gees chorus give it an unlikely amount of swag.

Unfortunately, Leave It Alone is an unwelcome come-down from these inspired first three tracks, a decidedly down-beat acoustic number and the kind of unmemorable track that the Shins reserved for the end of their first two albums. James Mercer tries to adopt a soul-influenced vocal which simply does not suit his voice. The album picks up in quality with the more jaunty Control, where the creative input of Danger Mouse again becomes clear as this song could have been recorded by Portugal. The Man, whose album he recently produced. The brass ending is a great touch too, which brings back the unpredictability that runs through Broken Bells’ best songs. Lazy Wonderland is another album highlight that transports you exactly where the title would suggest, and the subtle addition of the strings and lazy falsetto backing vocals complete this swaying ballad. The stop-start Medicine keeps things flowing nicely along, but the duo really outdo themselves with the glam stomp of No Matter What You’re Told; again see Burton’s previous production efforts with Electric Guest and Portugal. The Man for obvious influences here.

The end of the album however, is disappointing; as with Leave It Alone and the underwhelming The Changing Lights, Danger Mouse’s slick production values cannot disguise the fact that Mercer has very little in the way of a memorable melody to work with. When Broken Bells hit their stride though, as they do at the beginning of the album and sporadically thereafter, the results are nothing short of brilliant. For the listener, After The Disco is a more melancholic and thoughtful second album, and will bring back the memories of many wasted Sundays after overindulging the night before.