Broken Bells Bark at the Moon on the Nervy, Red-Blooded 'After the Disco'

8
After the Disco
Critical Mass
Release Date: February 4, 2014
Label: Columbia

by Barry Walters

Despite their masterfully rendered melancholic psych-pop, similarly wistful sci-fi videos, and respective indie-rock and hip-hop credentials, Broken Bells are ultimately about The Cinema. Shins frontman James Mercer sees himself as a Coen Brothers-style black-comedy anti-hero inevitably upended and emasculated by fate; Gnarls Barkley musician-producer Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton is to pop music what guys like Wes Anderson are to film — an auteur who puts his authorial stamp on every genre he touches, thrilling fans and enraging detractors in equal measure.

What they create from this symbiotic union doesn’t exactly fit the Hollywood model for success, even though they've each achieved more than their share. Both got unconventional breaks — Mercer via Zach Braff's gushing Garden State Shins plug; Burton through his ingeniously blasphemous Beatles/Jay Z Grey Album mash-up. Taking their arrangement cues from late-'60s/early-'70s film soundtracks and their sensibility from European existentialists (Jean Genet, Michelangelo Antonioni) and the Yanks who love them (Stanley Kubrick, Hal Ashby, Martin Scorsese), they both swim in the mainstream without drowning in it because their technique is so strong. Their melodic and sonic abilities are pure pop; their lyrical and aesthetic consciousness, not so much.

After the Disco is the rare, superior sequel — think Toy Story 2 — to Mercer and Burton's seemingly one-off self-titled 2010 debut as Broken Bells. More committed this time — and sounding less like a side project overly obsessed with Beck's despondent Sea Changes — this enervated, rejuvenated follow-up feels like the best of both their worlds, no longer content with mere diversions or outtakes. Instead of trying to mask or distort Mercer's identity, the duo instead presents a clearer, more soulful rendering of the singer while strengthening his bond to Burton, who broadens the sonic palette while boosting the BPMs.

The pair can also bond over their outsider status: The Smiths/Cure-loving Mercer is the Honolulu-born son of a Navy munitions officer-cum-nightclub-singer who found himself transferred to Germany, then England, then Albuquerque; Burton grew up in a Jewish neighborhood of White Plains, New York, far from other African-Americans, until his family packed up for Atlanta, where his taste shifted from Poison to hip-hop to Pink Floyd and Portishead, an urbane eclecticism (London came next) that set the table for The Grey Album to make him a studio superstar.

All that internationalism and cultural omnivorousness is more apparent than ever on Disco. Opening the album with Miami Vice synths and a dance-steady motorik drumbeat, "Perfect World" speeds along the Autobahn while Mercer sings to a London moon. Indie-rock modesty has sometimes clipped the Shins leader's wings, but here he spreads them on a widescreen arrangement that explodes with a white-knuckled guitar solo, introducing both edge and the Edge into Broken Bells' meticulous craft, before an unexpected refrain cuts the tempo in half, back to the duo's even-tempered comfort zone.

Hand in hand with that eclecticism goes the idea of Broken Bells as a partnership built on the past's vision of the future. The title track removes Mercer and Burton from their debut's fixation on '60s psychedelia and further situates them in that late-'70s/early-'80s transition from disco to new wave, built on both genres' mutual faith in synthesizers and Star Wars, when post-birth-control pill and pre-AIDS, we believed that utopian free love and all-night dancing to machines that fell to earth would bring about humanity's salvation. Mercer gets his Bee Gees falsetto on here and in the next cut, "Holding on for Life," which both trump anything on Broken Bells.

The alienation that this duo knows so well remains, but there's far more compositional assurance. These are pop songs rendered dramatically and far more rhythmically than before; once pointed uncomfortably inward, they now direct their sentiments at lost women searching for nocturnal satisfaction, the newest jam, the next big thing.

Mercer may be married, but cut after Disco cut seems to deal with domestic disruption and lovers on the verge of leaving — the push-pull between excitement and stability, control and surrender. This isn't small-stakes, indie-rock stuff: It's opera, life or death. Mercer's favorite singer is his teen idol, Ian McCulloch, the brooding Echo & the Bunnymen baritone, and after all these years as a professorial figure, the once-humble Shin is finally cutting loose and channeling that wailing-in-your-raincoat-under-the-killing-moon vibe.

His partner is even more of a maximalist: Burton loves both hip-hop symphonies and prog-rock sprawl. But now it seems he's realized that his singer's tendency toward poetic obfuscation is best undercut by bold strokes. Once again, there are plenty of strings here, overseen by Italy-born spaghetti-Western revivalist Daniele Luppi, Burton's collaborator on his passionate but patchy Rome album. This time, though, they're offset by driving bass lines and the sort of countermelodies that animate much of Paul McCartney's and Serge Gainsbourg's best work: Check the groove that rides the tom-toms throbbing and tumbling through "The Changing Lights," one of Disco's typically impactful, red-blooded cuts.

But "Leave It Alone" is the most direct and immediate thing here. Its acoustic guitar-plucking takes Mercer back to the folk-rock of "New Slang" by way of Fleet Foxes, but he sings with a Southern-R&B cry he's never before attempted, and in an even more startling development, it works. And as with most of the songs here, the whole package isn't so much arranged as plotted, with an auspicious beginning, a climactic middle, and a surprising dénouement. Mercer really lets loose in the song's second act, and follows his bravura vocal with similarly extroverted guitar squawks before the final and most reserved verse, the album's third mention of a moon shining down on yet another impending lonely departure. Fate remains up against Mercer and Burton’s will, but now they're fighting — and howling — back.

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