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When the duo of James Mercer (The Shins) and Brian Burton (Danger Mouse) decided to once again put their heads together as Broken Bells, they were thinking bigger than simply a record. Their aim was to create a motif that transcended not only the sophomore LP, which they titled After the Disco, but the two-part short film sequence that they released as an accompaniment, effectively creating a mellow, sci-fi, disco, multimedia package.
Album opener A Perfect Life showcases the heady melodies that vocalist Mercer has become known for. It’s an indie cut somewhat reminiscent of the their previous, self-titled album. The crucial shift from the predecessor is evident in album number two’s overwhelming pop feel, established with the use of ’80s synths and pulsing percussion lines.
A Perfect Life sees Mercer lament the difficulty of approaching love wisely, singing, “I thought love would always find a way / But I know better now / Got it figured out / It’s a perfect world all the same”. From the lyrics, one can glean the direction in which the album is headed. Its concerns lie mostly with the issues of young adults dealing with love and loss and finding their way through life in the quirky setting of an intergalactic disco.
First single Holding on for Life displays Burton’s fine and lengthy production history, which includes collaborations with The Black Keys, MF Doom, and Beck, as well as with with Cee Lo Green in Gnarls Barkley. The track is a dizzy mix, echoing sounds of The Beatles, (as can also be heard on Lazy Wonderland) and the Bee Gees, an all too easy comparison to make, but geez, does Mercer sound like Barry Gibb here. Throughout, we hear eerie, wobbling sounds that throw images of extraterrestrial life-forces at you.
The most commercially viable single on the album comes in the form of the title track, in which we are whisked off to the light-up dance floor in our minds. It has all the elements of a ’70s disco hit: high falsettos, a bass that defies you not to tap your foot, and did I mention double claps?
But while it’s lively, it doesn’t seem to match other recent disco-inspired releases. It’s not easy for any act with such a comparable theme to follow Daft Punk’s 2013 tour-de-force, Random Access Memories, and where Broken Bells’ offering falls short is in not quite being able to meet the grandness and fun of their competition.
The album soon smooths out and takes us away form the dance floor with Leave it Alone, The Changing Lights, and Control, though we never leave the disco. The strength of these tracks is in their vocal melodies and we can hear the accompaniment of the Angel City String Orchestra and Choir working to bring the tracks to life. We end on the alt-rock of The Remains of Rock and Roll, where the only sniff of disco left is Mercer’s falsettos.
Broken Bells’ debut has sold just under 700,000 units to date. While After the Disco is good, and it may well sell many more records, it lacks some of the musical punch and passion that you find yourself waiting for. There’s no doubt this sci-fi/indie/disco film and music motif has been carefully constructed, but the overall package just doesn’t fill the gaps where the record flattens out.