After the Disco
Released: 31 January 2014 (Columbia Records)
By Josh Hughes
James Mercer and Brian Burton have both reached the moment in their careers where they exist in a state somewhere between young, fresh innovative musicians, and untouchable veteran idols. Between the two of them, there’s about ten amazing albums under the collective belt that is Broken Bells. Their first combined effort, the underrated self titled LP, originally sounded like a supergroup/side project, that turned out to be one of the richest, most enveloping popular albums in recent memory. Four years later, in the height of merging genres and the ‘anyone can now write music’ onset, After The Disco tries to cement Broken Bells as just as unique and fresh as they were four years earlier.
In a way, it’s kind of a shame that Arcade Fire beat Broken Bells to the punch with the whole modern disco revival, if you will. For one, After the Disco is a much less grandiose album, and where Arcade Fire’s Reflektor tried to encompass the world in 70 minutes, Broken Bells focuses on the vastness of heartbreak and loneliness in 40-something minutes. Also, being second to a fresh musical idea takes away the element of surprise in most of the cuts on After The Disco, leaving the songs to hold up for themselves based largely on songwriting. Luckily, much of the album holds its weight in catchy, bubbly cuts.
The first half of the album follows a steady, enjoyable pace from “Perfect World” to “The Changing Lights”, exploring tons of classic Mercer melodies. The one-two opening slam of “Perfect World” and the title track are the best examples of the late night, sad party album they were apparently going for, though they use an almost identical synth sound.That’s where After The Disco falls short of Broken Bells’ first output- it sounds more like a James Mercer record produced by Dangermouse. There’s a lack of varied instrumentation that made that first album so enveloping; songs that sounded so distinctly Broken Bells like “The Ghost Inside” and “The High Road” are gone and replaced with Shins-esque minor key space rock jams. Depending on your point of view, that’s not necessarily a bad thing at all, but I can’t help but feel there’s a lack of innovation here that I’ve come to expect from both artists.
“Leave it Alone”, Burton’s biggest presence on the album, sounds like a Black Keys/Gnarls Barkley/Beck homage, and while it flies a little too far into the realm of knock-offs, its acoustic guitar strums and excellent coda make it one of the most memorable songs of their catalogue thus far. On the other side, “Lazy Wonderland” is one of Mercer’s best songs to date, even if it feels like a Port of Morrow B-Side. Lead single “Holding On For Life” starts with a cheesy sci-fi flick synth that morphs into a full on disco jam, falsetto chorus and everything. It sounds like the most democratic collaboration on the album, and the fact that it delays its jaw dropping hook to after the first chorus is one of the most obviously deliberate slices of genius on the album.
Unfortunately, the second half of the album, while not bad in the slightest, floats into connect the dots filler, and doesn’t pack any punches like the first half does. After spending a good week of spinning this album, I still mix up “Control”, “Medicine”, and “No Matter What You’re Told”. In the hands of lesser artists, any of those songs could sound like a promising start to a career, but for such heavyweights, they feel underdeveloped. Broken Bells don’t have any previous material when they go into the studio for recording, and while that works to their benefit on some songs, it seems to impact the cohesiveness of the album altogether. It’s an impressive feat for anyone to come up with such catchy songs in a matter of days, but if they had more time with each of the songs, I can’t help but feel this could have been a great album. Instead, it’s merely a good album that verges on greatness.
Luckily, as it has become Mercer’s forte in the past decade and a half, the closing song on After The Disco is mesmerizing. Not “The Mall & Misery” or “Those To Come” haunting, not a bizarre epic like “Port Of Morrow”, but it adds my belief that this guy knows how to end an album. The orchestral strings at the start of “The Remains of Rock & Roll” pick up where they left off on the first album’s “Sailing To Nowhere”, and feels less restrained than the entire album before it. Lyrically, like most of After The Disco, it falls a little short of Mercer’s best moments, but that’s not much of a crutch when there’s bursts of brilliance like the drug addict on the title track using heartbreak as a metaphor, or the late late night sadness of “The Changing Lights”.
All in all, Broken Bells still have my attention as one of the most interesting and clever bands around, though After The Disco falls somewhat short of what it could have been. That said, the title track is one of the early contenders for song of the year, with “Perfect World” close behind it. It’s also a quickly accessible, catchy album that I’ll easily find myself returning to throughout the year. I think their next release will be the telling moment if Broken Bells still works as a full on, innovative group, or more of a fully explored side project.
Fav Tracks: “Perfect World”, “After The Disco”, “Holding On For Life”, “Lazy Wonderland”
Rating: Liked It