Back in 1996, before the Shins became one of the most beloved and popular indie bands of the past decade, they were a side project to singer-songwriter James Mercer’s band Flake Music.
If Broken Bells’ new album “After the Disco” is any indication, this transition from “side project” to “main gig” might be about to happen again.
Broken Bells, a collaborative project between Mercer and Gorillaz/Black Keys/Gnarls Barkley producer Danger Mouse (a.k.a. Brian Burton), has been around since 2009. The self-titled album the duo released that year attracted critical praise and healthy sales.
Still, there was a nagging feeling that the Bells were the exact sum of their parts, simply the Shins with a different producer behind the boards. But with “After the Disco,” they prove once and for all that’s not the case.
On the surface, “After the Disco” sounds quite a bit like its self-titled predecessor. Both albums are built on the peanut-butter-and-chocolate combination of Burton’s cinematic production style and Mercer’s vocal and melodic talents. The genres informing them are also similar, ranging from ’80s synth-pop to old spaghetti Western scores.
But there’s a sense of precision and focus that was largely absent on the duo’s freshman effort. That album’s drifting, multi-part experimental tracks, such as “Your Head Is On Fire” and “Sailing To Nowhere,” are gone entirely. In their place: eleven painstakingly-crafted pop songs. Nothing more, nothing less. These refinements don’t feel like a huge deal at first, but they allow “Disco” to be catchier, deeper and better than “Broken Bells” ever was.
The obvious highlight of “After the Disco” isn’t the album’s title track, or even lead single “Holding on for Life.” It’s the opener, a six-minute-long epic called “Perfect World.” Though it comes off as ambient and low-key for the first 30 seconds, “Perfect World” soon transforms into a full-blown anthem. This is the kind of song destined to kick off headlining sets at festivals, and it’s one of the best things both Mercer and Burton have ever done.
Another standout is “Lazy Wonderland,” the song on “After the Disco” that’s most reminiscent of Mercer’s work with the Shins. “Wonderland” is an acoustic ballad at heart, albeit one swathed in glitchy synthesizers and orchestral arrangements.
Thankfully, it doesn’t feel overdone, as the multiple layers of Burton’s production don’t smother “Wonderland’”s simple melody. In fact, they strengthen it.
As fans of defunct indie-pop band The Postal Service know, falling in love with a supergroup is risky business. No matter how influential, acclaimed or lucrative such a band is, there’s always a chance that their members will see them as a one-and-done proposition, something to kill time before they return to their day jobs.
That being said, it’s starting to feel like Broken Bells is Mercer and Burton’s day job. And that’s a good thing, as “After the Disco” wouldn’t have been possible without that level of commitment.
It’s a fully-formed, exquisitely-polished pop voyage, made possible by both members’ earlier projects while sounding like nothing they’ve done before. 2014 may have just started, but don’t be surprised if “Disco” is remembered as one of the year’s strongest albums.