opinion byBENJI TAYLOR < @benjitaylorwins >
"Broken Bells" – it’s a curious moniker, evoking the image of dusty cracked instruments, abandoned in a hidden basement to silent centuries of stony sleep, unable to fulfil the duty for which they were created - to make music. It's a smart satirical name for a group comprising musicians famed for their unbridled creativity and zealous work rate: James Mercer, the creative mastermind behind indie darlings The Shins; and uber-producer Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton), a man boasting a golden touch that packs more potency than Phrygia's King Midas.
First things first then: it’s a more accomplished LP than their debut - the melodies are dreamier and more inventive, Mercer’s delivery more emotive, and the instrumentation more fertile than the lukewarm neo-psych that pervaded their first album, Broken Bells. While hooks and melodies abound, Burton – a self-confessed musical “auteur” - is never so churlish to prioritise melody over mood and ambience… The onus is on a cinematic projection of widescreen melancholia, though one bolstered by a counter-redeeming edge of optimism, lest the album become the aural equivalent of an Ingmar Bergman movie.
Opener “Perfect World” is a majestic meld of punchy percussion, lightning bolt synths, and sombre fretwork, though Mercer's inimitable vocal is given ample space to shine. The excellent title track is driven along by funk-fuelled bass before Mercer's falsetto bursts like a handful of confetti at the chorus. Lead single “Holding On For Life” commences with a cartoon-esque “Scooby-Doo” intro before another fantastic moody bass-line edges the song along to the Bee Gees homage of a chorus.
Sadly, the album doesn't maintain the pace and quality established by the opening trio of songs, though that's more a testament to the strength of those tracks than to any resonant issues with others. “The Changing Lights” and “Control” are other highlights, both sparkling pop gems undercut by a thin vein of melancloly. The only flawed moments are on “Leave It Alone” and “Angel and The Fool” - the former comes across as a Black Keys pastiche whilst the latter devolves into a slice of tepid mediocre balladry.
Thematically, After The Disco is a break-up album, and one that could expertly soundtrack a thousand doomed relationships. The album name and title track is a thinly veiled allegory to the coming-down-to-earth period after the heady rush of the early stage of a romance. “The Changing Lights” echoes the sentiment of hopeless and unrequited love - with Mercer using the backdrop of shifting lights as a metaphor for a relationship in constant flux.
There's a sense of displacement that runs through the album too, of impermanence and not belonging - the characters that populate these soundscapes exist in a self-imposed exile. The down-trodden lady of the night who saunters weary-boned through "Holding On For Life" belongs to another epoch entirely; the man who walks unheeded through "Leave It Alone" has travelled the globe but cannot find anywhere he truly belongs. Mercer's consolation and After The Disco's chief admission is that we shouldn't be looking for other people to define us: "I've been turned around, I was upside down, I thought love would always find a way/ But I know better now, I've got it figured it - it's a perfect world all the same..."
So why does the album seem less than the sum of its parts? Taken as part of the collective canon of both artists After The Disco is underwhelming. Individually, Burton and Mercer are prodigious talents - the former listed by Esquire as one of the magazine's seventy-five most influential people of the 21st century; the latter, revered in musical circles as possessing messianic qualities oft-reserved for indie-rock luminaries such as Morrissey and Robert Smith. This LP falls short of their best efforts outside of Broken Bells: Mercer's magnum-opus 2003's Chutes Too Narrow, and Burton's dazzling production wizardry on 2006's St. Elsewhere. But taken solely as part of the Broken Bells discography it’s their best effort yet: a textured, kaleidoscopic pop record that crackles with imagination, and hints at the sign of something brilliant to come. B