Broken Bells - After The Disco
Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse) and James Mercer, known together as Broken Bells, are certainly the odd-couple of pop. When they first met at Roskilde festival in 2004 Burton was still a relatively unknown producer - his only notable work being the Jay Z meets The Beatles mash-up The Grey Album - whilst Mercer had released two albums with The Shins. An instant rapport and fondness for one another's output set in motion a chain of events that would lead to the formation of Broken Bells and the subsequent release of the woozy spaced-out pop of their self titled debut.
Despite assurances that this was not just a one-off, the duo's other commitments - Burton has joked that Mercer's work with The Shins is like a marriage, whilst he's free to play the field - meant it would always be difficult getting them back in the studio together. Fortunately they kept their promise and have returned with After The Disco, an album which takes the template of their debut but explores a much more expansive direction, merging slick, rich production with a hook-driven pop ethos.
One of the first things you'll notice about After The Discois how textured it seems in comparison to their debut (which isn't to say it was flat, but just not as detailed). On lead single, 'Holding On For Life' there are glimpses of keyboard melodies in the verses that are so faint you could be forgiven for missing them completely. The theremin which appears during the song's introduction even makes a quiet cameo during the track's chorus which, coupled with James Mercer's falsetto, turns the track into a futuristic disco track - with more than a hint of The Bee-Gees about it.
'Leave It Alone' meanwhile, features one of the album's most beautiful introductions as an acoustic guitar melody combines with a multi-tracked Mercer humming the song's refrain over the top. It's hypnotic and draws you in as the band then introduce soft synthesiser and string swells. In the second verse a slightly off tempo beat kicks in, played live by Burton and then modified afterwards to get a more 'digital' sound. In an interview with NPR he admitted that After The Discofeatured far more live drumming than the debut record had, but he still wanted to capture that drum machine sound. The result of this process is that After the Discofeatures much more intricate and interesting percussion throughout, allowing the album to feel like the work of an ensemble as opposed to just two men in a studio.
Of course, Broken Bells is just Mercer and Burton, and whilst there are a few contributions from other artists - Daniel Luppi provided string arrangements and Nate Walcott of Bright Eyes played live horn on one song - the album is essentially all down to a fascinating collaboration and willingness to experiment. Opening track 'Perfect World' was built using an arpeggiated synthesiser as the foundation (which fades in right at the start of the song) with everything else then being recorded around it. With a keyboard riff that bounces between channels and a hook that seems ripped straight from an '80s pop classic there is something unashamedly over the top about the track.
'Perfect World' is also one of the first songs to really showcase some of the great changes that happen as Mercer and Burton combined multiple ideas. In the opening track the music gives way to a steady arpeggiated synthesiser that plays beneath Mercer, sounding almost defeated as he sings "We look for exit signs but we can't be changed into nothing overnight." When the song kicks back in it's in half-time and is now far more melancholic, like the cold realisation felt during a terrible hangover the morning after a party.
The title offers a clue that After The Discois not a party album, but instead the hazy comedown. There are elements of dance, pop and disco on the record, but Mercer's vocals always tend towards the melancholic or melodramatic. During 'Lazy Wonderland', one of many tracks that are far removed from anything Broken Bells have released before, Mercer sings, over dreamlike harmonies, the chorus refrain; "tonight we'll go / laughing all the way my love / tomorrow we'll go / back in time to live today." Like many of the songs on the record it emanates a psychedelic, almost hallucinatory quality, that is perfectly complimented by the music. In this case a combination of strange metronomic beats and hazy guitar chords. The frequent song changes as well help to emphasise this as they slip between time changes (on 'Perfect World') as well as genre. One of the strangest song progressions comes during 'Medicine', which despite opening with a funky guitar riff that flips between channels, ends as an almost Parisian style romp featuring acoustic guitar, accordion and xylophone.
For some this might be a bit too much, and it is easy to understand why. Some songs feel as though they are a mish-mash of ideas, and whilst Broken Bells are able, for the most part, to construct cohesive and catchy pop songs, there's a sense that sometimes they could have gotten more out of the song if they'd stuck to one idea instead of two or three. There are also a few awkward transitions between songs - the carnivalesque 'The Angel and The Fool' sits a little uncomfortably next to the space age balladry of closing track 'The Remains of Rock and Roll'.
Yet After the Discoremains an immensely enjoyable record that is also wildly imaginative. It's euphoric, it's psychedelic, it's atmospheric and it's melancholic. At no point does it feel like Broken Bells are resting on their laurels - the attention to detail and wealth of ideas committed to record show how much work has gone in to the album. After The Disco is an unashamedly brilliant pop album that might just be the right kind of stuff to get you through the remains of winter.
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