Album Review: Broken Bells, “After the Disco”

After the Disco

“After the disco, all of the shine just faded away,” Shin-in-Chief James Mercer sings on the title track of After the Disco (2014), his second album under the banner of Broken Bells with hip-hop auteur Danger Mouse (Brian Burton). And certainly, much of the record sounds like it could’ve been made just in the wake of disco’s early 80s decline. The falsetto vocals on “Holding on For Life” are pure Bee Gees, but the musical backdrop, with its sampled drums and icy synthesizers, is much closer in spirit to Duran Duran; meanwhile, “The Changing Lights” calls to mind the Cars at their nerviest or the Talking Heads at their most melodic.

This is far from a mere genre exercise, however; the aforementioned “Holding on for Life” features a middle-eight straight out of the Beatles’ “Cry Baby Cry,” while “The Remains of Rock & Roll” summons the ghost of Oasis in their “Champagne Supernova” prime. It’s an interesting direction for Mercer, a songwriter who made his name with cryptically melodic indie guitar pop, but it yields some fine results. With a voice that distinctive, you never quite forget this is the man who sang “New Slang.” But he really gets to show off his range here, both vocally and stylistically.

For all its New Wave-isms, though, After the Disco is also state-of-the-2010s, as evidenced by the deeply felt presence of Danger Mouse. I want to love this guy, I really do. But this album leaves me every bit as ambivalent about Mr. Burton as every other album he’s produced. On the one hand, he’s an immensely talented arranger, populating his soundscapes with everything from synthesized horns to opulent strings to underwater guitars to celestial choirs, usually serving the song with aplomb and only rarely laying it on too thick. The problem is that, rather than allowing his imaginative arrangements to take center stage, Burton consistently obscures them behind a thick curtain of digital compression. Songs as different, in their raw sonics, as “Leave It Alone,” “The Angel & the Fool” and “The Remains of Rock & Roll” shouldn’t sound so flat and same-y. You end up wishing some of the shine would fade away and let these songs breathe.

Not unlike Portugal. the Man’s Evil Friends, however, Burton’s questionable engineering choices aren’t enough to shatter Broken Bells. On balance, I’d rather have seen a new Shins albumI’m not convinced that these songs wouldn’t have been improved by the full band treatment. But whatever Mercer might sing in “Perfect World,” we would do well, to paraphrase Voltaire, not to let the perfect become the enemy of the good. And After the Disco is pretty good, an improvement in almost every way on the duo’s debut and a solid entry in both artists’ discographies


Buy it here.

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