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Broken Bells: After The Disco [Album Review]

Words by Tim Onslow.

“what a lovely day to be lonely”

Broken Bells deliver sophomore LP After The Disco, a further instalment of the beautifully sad songs and silky beats that defined their eponymous 2010 debut.

Comprised of The Shins frontman, James Mercer and uber-hip polymath producer Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton), the pair form a perfect match: sharing a mutually melancholic aesthetic, tonal bias toward the atmospherically sinister, and a genius for beautifully heart-rending melody.

Danger Mouse (and, if you’ve ever wondered, Burton assumed the moniker after playing early shows dressed as the heroic rodent because he was too shy to reveal his face on stage) has had a truly blessed career. Professionally promiscuous, his roster of past and present collaborators reads like a roll call of some of the most admired and innovative artists of the last decade: Damon Albarn (Gorrilaz, The Good, The Bad & The Queen), Sparklehorse, Beck, Jack White (on the Rome LP), The Black Keys, David Lynch, The Shortwave Set, Frank Ocean (album as yet unannounced) to name a few, and all aside from the Gnarls Barkley express-train to mainstream ubiquity he rode with alongside CeeLo Green.

Single ‘Holding On For Life’ is built upon a signature Danger Mouse rhythm track of prominent, moody bass and crisply evocative beats that have more than a hint of Gorrilaz‘s Demon Days to them. Mercer glides above it with a contrastingly laid-back verse delivery and a chorus that ascends to pitch-perfect Barry Gibb ventriloquism, a layered echoing falsetto. There’s also a delicious Beatles-esq Revolver interlude of crunching guitar after the second chorus. The band made an accompanying short film in two parts, which was spliced together to form the video for the single.

The album’s title track is an instantly infectious earworm and thematically representative of the record as a whole; sad lyrics over a strident, optimistic beat and bitter-sweet twists of clinically effective melody, Mercer also sounding strangely like James Dean Bradfield in the bridge.

Broken Bells have perhaps been slightly disingenuous when claiming that “there is no disco on this album”, there are many moments of generously ladled groove to be had, mirror-balls and opportunities for platformed-prancing aplenty, but there is admittedly more stylistic range to be found. The beats are suspended for ‘Leave It Alone’, an acoustic guitar-led accusatory romantic ballad with a warm gospel ripple underpinning the chorus.

‘Medicine’ is a bouncy slice of pop, though it fades with a coda of delicate music-box twinkling, perhaps a reference to the special editions of Broken Bells’ debut that included a tinny music box overture which played when the album case was opened.

Burton and Mercer first crossed melancholically inspired paths back in 2005 when Mercer appeared on the excellent Burton-produced Sparklehorse album Dark Night of the Soul, laying down the beautiful track ‘Insane Lullaby’. The album was subsequently mired and delayed in legal bullshit, eventually seeing release only in 2010 after Sparklehorse’s depressive savant, Mark Linkous, sat down in the road outside a friend’s house on a sunny afternoon in Knoxville and shot himself in the heart with a rifle.

The album’s twin closers, ‘The Angel & The Fool’ and ‘The Remains of Rock and Roll’ are so strikingly reminiscent of Burton’s Ennio Morricone tribute LP Rome (with Jack White, Daniele Luppi and Norah Jones et al) that for a moment I thought I was listening to that record. Acoustic rhythm guitar, dryly subdued and languid beats, violin, child-like female backing vocals, woozy synth, even Ennio’ing it up to the pleasing audacity of a good ole fashioned whistle moment!

Bullet-proof, seamless production throughout, After The Disco mixes the melancholy edge of Burton’s ruthlessly effective soundscapes and Mercer’s excellent and frequently tonally adaptive voice, lending humanity and tenderness to the synths and brooding beats. Burton is a master of the dark, sultry and irresistibly sexy, Mercer a genius of melody, crafted so sharply on this record that almost every track feels like a single.

With deeply sad lyrics haunting each song, it’s also an album of quirkily retro futurism, twee sci-fi references and a general concept that Burton has described as “what people in the Fifties and Sixties thought now was gonna be like”. After The Disco showcases Broken Bells as two mutually-inspired artists achieving stunning creative synthesis.

Rating: ★★★★

After The Disco by Broken Bells will be available this week on February 4 through Columbia Records. Pre-order your copy now on iTunes.

Let’s end with the video for ‘Holding On For Life’ | |  

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