Album review: Broken Bells’ ‘After the Disco’ is a melancholy beauty

02.04.14 5 years ago

On the excellent “After the Disco,” Broken Bells -aka Danger Mouse and The Shins” James Mercer – wonder how we got here. Not physically, but metaphysically. Song after song on the synth pop-driven set asks hard questions for which there are no answers.

More consistent than their self-titled 2010 debut, the atmospheric “After the Disco”s” often uplifting synth lines smooth the path for the alienation and loneliness of Mercer”s lyrics. It”s a tough album to listen to at times because there”s nothing but cold comfort, and not much of that, as Mercer touches again and again on the distance between the love and life we want and our inability to bridge the gap between our reality and our desires because we cant get out of our own way.

Uncertainty and ambivalence circle like sharks in the water and we”re the chum. Danger Mouse, aka Brian Burton, told Rolling Stone that the record was informed by their fascination with “What people in the Fifties and Sixties thought now was gonna be like. That”s when we did the record: that”s where a lot of that came from.” That”s a little hard to decipher but there is a certain “outside looking in” distance on many of the tracks.

Mercer”s voice warms the synth tones, as does the spare instrumentation of mainly guitar, bass and drums, but it will still leave you with a chill.

Below is a track-by-track review:

“Perfect World”: A chiming, dreamy synthetic track that recalls the ’80s as Mercer sings about heartbreak. “I thought love would always find a way/but I know better know/it”s a perfect world all the same.” The 6-minute song sets the expectations for the rest of the album. We”re in for what promises to be an emotional ride.  Grade: B

“After the Disco”: Despite the title, the disco balls still spinning in this upbeat track as Mercer puts his falsetto to good use. Though the melody is bouncy, the story he has to tell is a sobering one. “Don”t tell me it”s not our time,” Mercer says, “Because I”m waiting here much too long.”  Grade: B

“Holding On For Life”: Spacey and ethereal, the mid-tempo track and album”s first single features Mercer doing his best Bee-Gees” imitation with an excellent falsetto that would make Barry Gibb proud. Grade: B

“Leave It Alone”: Slightly folky and with a gospel-like chorus musically, this song is all bitterness lyrically as Mercer acutely feels the distance between the love he wants and what he can give. Grade: B+

“The Changing Lights”: One of the album”s most inviting tracks musically with a catchy beat and hummable melody, but, as with much of the rest of the lyrics, the lovers are so far apart there”s no way to find their way back to each other.   “My cards are on the table/I”m here tonight/but I don”t need anything from you… I”ll still be waiting here for you,” Mercer sings as the melody builds. Grade: B

“Control”: The funkiest track on the album is slightly sinister as a synth line weaves through the story of sands shifting below our feet.  “Nothing”s permanent in life so it”s useless to hold on so tight,” Mercer sings. Preach…  Grade: A-

“Lazy Wonderland”: A drifting, easy tune that has the perfect title for the mood it sets. Grade: B

“Medicine”: Upbeat and jaunty melodically, “Medicine” is one of the more danceable tracks here. It ends a sweet, tinkly waltz. Grade: B

“No Matter What You”re Told”: A cross between Oingo Boingo and The Raconteurs, this new wave-influenced track bounces along between synth and guitar lines with a steady drum beat to keep it from floating away, and Mercer”s cautionary warning that no matter what you’re told, nothing really changes. Grade: B+

“The Angel and the Fool”: She”s the angel, he”s the fool, on this gorgeous, mainly acoustic ballad. He finds her “balancing the weight of a pill on her tongue,” and he is determined to save her. Both lyrically and musically, one of the album”s most arresting tracks. Grade: A

“The Remains of Rock & Roll”:
A thumping bass kicks off the final chapter and lets in a little light.  “We prefer good love to gold and the remains of rock and roll.” Layered vocals create a chanting  effect as the album comes to an abrupt halt as if a soundproof door closed and the action continues, we just aren”t able to hear it anymore. Grade: B

On a separate note, Broken Bells appeared on “The Late Show with David Letterman” last night to promote the set and also turned in a nifty version of The Beatles” “And I Love Her,” creatively accompanied on drums by Ringo Starr.

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