“Oh London moon, help me stumble home, help me lose myself along the way.” So begins the return of Broken Bells, the all-too-perfect team up between now legendary producer Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) and the genius songwriter who gave us the Shins, James Mercer. After The Disco is the soundtrack to the rest of your life after you figured out that last night was the best your life will ever get. Back in 2010, their self-titled debut LP was a quiet game-changer. Song after song was a perfect combination of blunt but well-intentioned songwriting with brilliantly simplistic electronic foundation. This year, they return with a heavy-handed sequel, the likes of which we couldn’t have seen in any other musical endeavor from these two. Broken Bells have always given us a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. Mercer offers us the advice we don’t want to hear, while Burton creates just enough of a groove to convince the listener to bite the bullet and continue forward. After The Disco is in every way the perfect continuation of the project these two so perfectly crafted four years ago. It’s a dark outlook, but it’s one we all share going forward. “I was hoping for a simple, rambling life, until the notion came to mind”, Mercer sings on opener “Perfect World”. Broken Bells lead the march towards an ominous horizon. but do so with a disco beat that refuses to forfeit.
James Mercer has never spun cheery tales. With the Shins, he wrote songs like “Gone For Good” and “Turn On Me” that saw love as an impossible chore, always working for the lesser amongst a multitude of impossible evils. Writing Broken Bells, he’s taken a conscious turn inwards, to focus on the impossibilities of living and making the best of one’s life with all factors working against you. More so on After The Disco than on the self-titled record, Mercer mixes the two, sharing his newfound perspective with lovers and friends who could benefit. The album’s lead single “Holding On For Life” sees him showering a struggling friend with motivation to continue. “Well, you may belong to another time, but still you have to carry on, my dear. No where else to go and you never know what to hide and what to show… you’re holding on for life.” Here, we find the quintessential After The Disco motif. An opposition is in place, and power to fight against it is hard to find, but with a change in perspective, the darkness up ahead can be adjusted a few shades lighter.
Other songs on After The Disco see similar topics tread. On “Leave It Alone”, Mercer tells a former lover to stop attempting reconciliation for the sole purpose of improving one’s self-respect. On the wonderfully complex “Control”, he spells out the struggle for power within sexual tension and questions the sincerity of every action. After The Disco finds Mercer and his peers on a much-trodden, cynical plane. But with a desire to make it a better, more loving place, there’s room and opportunity for improvement. Here, we see Mercer doing what he does best: telling it like it is, then showing us how it could be.
But it’s not just Mercer who’s at full potential on After The Disco. Progressive as ever, Brian Burton brings the pain to main Mercer’s songs as poignant as humanly possible. The opening track is the musical incarnation of After The Disco‘s focus. A driving electronic track opens the album as Mercer lays out the foundation of “Perfect World”. Then as he diverts to the brutal but crucial crux, the song breaks down into a gorgeous acoustic masterpiece. Similar genius happens on the sprawling wonder of “The Changing Lights” and spacey, psychedelic “Lazy Medicine”, a tried and true Broken Bells wanderer if there ever was one.
After The Disco ends with “The Remains of Rock and Roll”, a track that sees Mercer and Burton both burning towards the finish line at breakneck speed. As the orchestra drunkenly stumbles into the night, Mercer comes in defiant and full of swagger. “It’s too long to wait around for everyone to decide. I’m going to the promised land if anyone wants a ride.” The wasteland that the two have been wandering for 42 minutes is a dead land, and they are ready to move on. The song is telling of so many landscapes that Mercer and Burton wander in their own lives: the dying music industry, the cynical media, and the aging fans who will always prefer older material to what is relevant here and now. “Is something wrong? You don’t look like you’re having fun. The road is long. You’ve got to let go of the things you’ve done.” After The Disco is a testament to the second half – the half that no one wants to talk about, and the one that humans (rock stars especially) would much rather deny than live into. But Mercer and Burton go forward with a hardened confidence, and if your skin is thick enough, their new record might give you a pointer or two in planning the next chapter.
After The Disco is out today on Columbia! Broken Bells have announced a handful of shows in support of the record including an appearance at Sasquatch! on Fourth of July weekend. For more Broken Bells fun, head to their Soundcloud to hear an insanely catch Nick Zinner (of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) remix of “Holding On For Life”.