Monday, February 19, 2018
Music News, Concert Reviews

Review: Broken Bells go for hits instead of heartbreak

Over the course of my career, I've slapped "best album of the year!!!" hyperbole on a few LPs that, in cringey retrospect, weren't. But I've never second-guessed gushing over 2010's Broken Bells, the eponymous debut from super-producer Danger Mouse and super-saddo James Mercer.

Mr. Mouse, better known as the taller, thinner one in Gnarls Barkley, and Mr. Mercer, better known as the Shins singer who made Zach Braff cry in Garden State, perfectly captured old-school AM loneliness in a new-school FM world. My knees still buckle at the song Vaporize.

Alas, the American duo's four-years-later followup, the new After the Disco, is not the best album of the year, as much as I really wanted it to be, such was the lasting effect of the first one. It's definitely worth your listening time; these sonic whiz-kids could make stomping on pine cones sound lush. But whereas Broken Bells, with bittersweet sorta-hit The High Road, had a beautifully unsettling Sunday-in-the-'70s feel, After the Disco vaults them into a grander, postpunky '80s vibe, all style, not as much substance. Broken Bells are still pretty sad; they just don't seem that sad about it.

Danger Mouse, a.k.a. Brian Burton, a.k.a. the guy who produced new U2 song Invisible, has a hankering for proggy, Alan-Parsonian keyboards on opening track Perfect World, on which Mercer sings, "I've got nothing left / It's kind of wonderful." It sounds great, but its themes of alienation are lost in the techno swirlies. Likewise, the title track marches on a funky-robot groove and keyboard tickles as Mercer unloads an arena-sized chorus: "How did I get in this winding maze of love?" It's a solid Broken Bells song — but with soulful Cee Lo, it would have made for a great Gnarls Barkley cut.

The album's top cuts are so musically adventurous, you don't mind the lack of feeling. Billy Idol circa '83 could have had a peroxide field day with Holding on for Life, which sounds not unlike an indie cover of Eyes Without a Face, although here the faceless love interest is a weary prostitute. The song's incongruous break, a Danger Mouse specialty, resembles something from the Beatles' "White Album," a rare heartbeat right there. Trying on a totally different guise, Broken Bells get up and rooster strut with "oh-oh-oh" posturing on the glammy, synth-brassy No Matter What You're Told, the dorks in Devo realizing they wanted to be in the Rolling Stones all along.

So just who are these guys? Good question. The first time around, Broken Bells wanted to make something quiet, contemplative, something for themselves. The keyboards were haunted; the guitars worried. The more I listen to the new record, the more I realize they wanted to make a hit. The songwriting is bigger, crowd-pleasing, with buzzy buildups and payoff choruses, the sounds and shifts and lyricism more overt (although The Angel and the Fool sounds like a late-night, lo-fi outtake from their debut album).

There's nothing wrong with seeking the chart tops; I just prefer when Broken Bells do their best to shatter my heart. But who knows? Maybe in cringey retrospect, I'll realize this was the best album of the year. That's a regret I wouldn't mind having.

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