Broken Bells Broken Bells Album Review

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Vinyl giveaway details at the end of the review.
Broken Bells
Broken Bells
Columbia Records
out March 9th

85/100
[Rating Scale]

404

Rate Broken Bells
[STARRATER]

There will be lots of reviews that compare Broken Bells, Danger Mouse’s project with The Shins’ James Mercer, to Gnarls Barkely, his project with Cee-Lo Green. Let’s get this out of the way early: both Broken Bells and Gnarls Barkley pair Danger Mouse with an iconic singer, and both bands have two-word names. That’s it. The similarities end there. This is a completely different animal.

There are, however, facile comparisons to Mercer’s earlier work. Eyes closed, this is a Shins album. There’s no use pretending that Broken Bells is a larger experimental step away from Wincing The Night Away than that record was from its predecessor, Chutes Too Narrow. Or than Chutes was from debut Oh, Inverted World. On each successive album, The Shins morphed and grew, managing to strike the same chord with fans despite playing in different keys. In that vein – and because The Shins are so closely tied to Mercer’s voice and vice versa - the line between that band and Broken Bells is a blurry one at best.

Which isn’t - to be clear - a knock against the album. At all. A quality album from one of the most successful indie musicians in the past decade is nothing at all to sneer at. Nor is it a knock against Danger Mouse - billed here under his given name, Brian Burton. Although Burton's contributions are less immediately identifiable here than on previous collaborations, that may well serve as a testament to his adaptability. He has seamlessly integrated himself into a sonic world that is heavy on melody and light on beats, donning a new hat before you even noticed that he took off the old one.

The partnership works as most good ones do, which is to say that there is no obvious aural distinction between contributions from Mercer and Burton. Both authors are given credit on music and lyrics, and the duo has gone on record saying that the entire album was written collaboratively. On Broken Bells, as Burton nudges Mercer towards a little more experimentation and fuzz, Mercer tugs him right back toward more relaxed song construction and instrumental progression. It’s a game of back-and-forth that winds up solidly in the middle, to the benefit of the listener. Rather than a jumbled mess, it’s a cohesive compromise – an album that doesn’t try to do too many things, and just is.

Broken Bells is a dark little gem of an album, an enjoyable slow burner that is pleasant to the ear on first listen and only improves with age and attention. On it, we hear Mercer at his most introspective. Gone are the upbeat songs of youth, replaced with sage wisdom; “I know what I know would not fill a thimble,” Mercer sings on “October,” “so let your mind go straight down the runway.”

Mercer’s lyrics have long been worthy of examination, and Burton proves to be a deserving co-writer. While there are plenty of lines that could be interpreted as subtle references to two of Mercer's former Shinsmates, with whom he had a less than amicable parting, Burton's involvement makes those inklings less sound. “The high road is hard to find, a detour in your new life, tell all of your friends goodbye,” “I cut the tie and I don’t have to rely on nothing no more,” “Digress from the people once by your side, but now that it’s over you have to pick up and start again.”

So let’s take the high road, so to speak, and assume that Broken Bells is about more than that. This isn’t some bitter barb aimed at old colleagues – it’s Mercer and Burton pondering how they got here, what they’ve done, and what there's time left to do. Again and again the album's musings turn to the permanence of life - the word “life” itself becomes a trope, heard on at least seven of the album’s ten tracks. It’s a wistful retrospection, but one tinged with a stop-sighing-and-do-something urgency. There’s no trace of complacency; instead Broken Bells describes a constant journey toward an impossibly distant destination. “Remember what they said,” sings Mercer, “there’s no shortcut to a dream. It’s all blood and sweat, and life is what you manage in between.”

It’s a brutish and short life that the pair describes, stagnation broken only by constant movement and change. “I was lost then and I’m lost now,” Mercer realizes on second single “Vaporize,” before confessing “I doubt I’ll ever know which way to go.” It doesn’t matter where he and Burton are going, though – it’s the going that is the important part. And Broken Bells is a step in the right direction.

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