ALBUM REVIEW: Broken Bells – After The Disco

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Broken Bells | Artist

After The Disco | Album

Columbia Records | Label

4 February 2014 | Release Date

8.4 | 10

For over ten years now, it’s been damn near impossible for me to disassociate James Mercer from his early career work with The Shins made popular in the seminal film Garden State. The barely-there music of Oh, Inverted World was a lot like the cinema’s magic hour, breathtakingly beautiful yet persistently evasive, always to return, always fleeting. Mercer’s music has gotten progressively “bigger,” more substantial yet somehow maintaining the raw and sincere emotions of his breakthrough with The Shins.

Producer Danger Mouse, by contrast, made a name for himself with the most grandiose of gestures: he mashed-up The Beatles’ massive The White Album and Jay Z’s could’ve-been swan song, The Black Album, creating the zeitgeist-capturing The Grey Album from the manufactured parts he copped. Remixing two titans of their respective genres, Danger Mouse (born Brian Burton) tackled an enormous project, one that would have smothered anyone else who dare do what Burton succeeded at.

This all finds Broken Bells’ two members at a crossroads: After The Disco is the boldest project Mercer has put to his name, while it is arguably Burton’s most low-key. Both artists learned a lot from their previous collaboration, 2011’s Broken Bells, which had its moments of brilliance, yet also was so excited by its own existence that it sometimes forgot to breathe. After The Disco, by comparison, is a much better paced record, picking and choosing its time to throw its biggest, most impactful, punches. Mercer and Burton’s working relationship certainly helps achieve this effect, with Mercer’s innate songwriting abilities and instantly recognizable vocals squeezing the most out of Burton’s upbeat, illuminating productions, while Burton’s wide array of influences help place Mercer in settings he wouldn’t otherwise inhabit.

“The Angel and The Fool” carries with it a Chutes Too Narrow-esque demeanor, acoustically based while featuring Mercer’s most ominous melody here and a subdued, hip-hop leaning production from Burton. On “No Matter What You’re Told,” Burton puts his time spent producing The Black Keys to good use, crafting a tune that packs as big of a punch as the Keys’ “Lonely Boy” and “Gold on the Ceiling.” It’s the type of backdrop one wouldn’t expect Mercer to sing in front of, but he turns the tune into his own personal playground, resulting in one of the more instantly gratifying moments of the album.

The album’s first half is anchored by first single “Holding On For Life,” by far the most Top 40-ready song Mercer has ever recorded, as well as the gorgeous and soulful “Leave It Alone.” The latter really stuns, showing off Mercer’s best vocal performance on After The Disco. That’s a testament to the power of the track, as Disco actually finds Mercer at his most adventurous vocally, jumping from a melting falsetto to his gravelly lower register, sometimes within the manner of beats. “After the disco, all the shine has faded away,” Mercer sings on the title track. But it turns out that After The Disco, the party only truly begins.

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