It’s always interesting to examine how diverse musical taste is. As an experiment, we asked three different writers to review the same album (After the Disco by Broken Bells, released today) and give us their take on it; of course, the listeners couldn’t discuss their opinions with one another and dilute the organic perspective. The result: three completely different looks at the same source material. We think you’ll find the results intriguing.
Is ‘After The Disco’ a Hit or a Miss?
Reviewer #1: Pauline Pechakjian
Nearly four years ago, the duo known as the Broken Bells took the indie rock world with the one-of-a-kind sound of their self-titled album, as they instantaneously created a solid fan base for their new project. Now, vocalist and guitarist James Mercer and producer Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse) just released their second album, After the Disco, to remind eager fans why they fell in love with the duo in the first place.
The two hold an impressive track record: Mercer serves as The Shins’ frontman, and Danger Mouse has produced for artists such as Gnarls Barkley, Gorillaz, The Black Keys, and Beck, to name a few. Broken Bells, however, is unlike anything either respective artist has ever worked on before. Their self-titled album presented their unique sound with “The High Road,” “The Ghost Inside,” “Vaporize,” and basically every other song on the album. They even released four more songs on the short EP, Meyrin Fields, between the making of their two studio albums. After the Disco acts as a futuristic sequel to its predecessor, carrying over the unifying harmony that occurs when Mercer’s voice blends with Burton’s beats.
The new album has a disco-like feel to it, as specified in the title; “Perfect World,” the opening song, will teleport you to a discotheque from the 70s with synth-pop undertones, and the lead single, “Holding on for Life,” has Mercer channeling his inner Barry Gibb. However, don’t be fooled by the catchy beats, because although the eleven songs on After the Disco may be fun to dance to, the lyrics reflect deeper themes of loneliness, heartache, and space-age apocalyptic scenarios.
Listeners will hear the duo push sonic boundaries in the new album, but tried-and-true fans will surely get some of the signature Broken Bells sound as defined by their earlier material. The nautical “Lazy Wonderland” can fit right with their self-titled first album, right along with “Medicine” and “The Angel and The Fool.” The synth is the main player throughout the album, but each song features a star instrument: “Control” focuses on bass, “The Changing Lights” highlights drums, “Leave it Alone” showcases acoustic guitar, and “After the Disco” emphasizes the power of Mercer’s falsetto. “No Matter What You’re Told” sounds experimental and features unique percussion as a pleasant surprise.
Accompanying the Broken Bells experience is an overall futuristic theme chock-full of space suits, geometric artwork, and the slight possibility of alien intervention (kidding). In all seriousness, Mercer and Burton have successfully interlocked all of their music, films, and artwork to co-dependently flow in unison. Appropriately, the Ray Bradbury-esque music video for “Holding on for Life,” starring actress Kate Mara, follows its space-themed prequel video for “The Ghost Inside” (featuring Christina Hendricks).
As with any quality artist, Broken Bells’ music is consistently perfect, and After the Disco makes their consistency more apparent than ever before. The album concludes with “The Remains of Rock and Roll,” a theatrically solemn ballad with a post-apocalyptic feel. As displayed on all twenty-five songs the duo have so kindly shared with us fans (from “The High Road” to the “The Remains of Rock and Roll”) each second of every song is pure musical genius.
Verdict: Very Favorable
Reviewer #2: Nicolas White
As the first synth lines of After the Disco fade in, the direction is clear: outwards, into the ethereal reaches of the cosmos. From the cover art – a nude girl overlooking a sprawl of stars – to the grooving space-rock of lead single “Holding On For Life,” Broken Bells’ aesthetic is certainly unified by a focused theme this time around. In fact, the second album from Danger Mouse and James Mercer is just that — focused. But perhaps, this band excels with a lack of direction, rather than a predetermined destination.
“Oh London moon / Help me stumble home / Let me lose myself along the way,” Mercer sings on the record’s first verse. It appears the intention to “get lost” was undoubtedly there, however as the album goes on, Broken Bells retread on what’s already worked for them before, instead of probing new outlets. If Mercer and Danger Mouse were to truly lose themselves in experimentation and take a few more risks, this band could be truly brilliant. The smooth, readily-listenable sound they’ve chosen is quite enjoyable at times, but it lacks the otherworldly grit to take the listener on the journey promised.
For other bands, this may be asking a little too much, seeing as After the Disco is a solid record, but considering the artistic talent of the members of Broken Bells, it’s hard not to desire more. The hooks are there, and the production is quite nice…but the substance is missing. Perhaps major label creative restrictions are to blame (they need hits, damn it!), or Mercer is feeling a little too level-headed these days, but either way, After the Disco chooses to stay within our solar system, instead of exploring the far stretches of infinity.
Verdict: Average / Lackluster
Reviewer #3: Adam Lalama
Upon reaching a certain age in life, the difficulty of recreating even an iota of the excitement we felt towards something as a child becomes depressingly apparent. Perhaps it’s a pessimistic view of the human aging process, or perhaps it’s reality. Regardless, the older we get, the more special something has to be to muster up any sort of excitement out of us. Back in October, when power-pop duo Brian Burton and James Mercer announced that they would be releasing a new album under their pseudonym Broken Bells, I got excited. After the Disco reflects the winning formula of Broken Bells as a band, taking the best musical qualities from two illustrious artists and sifting them into indie-pop perfection.
After the Disco is the second full-length from the group, preceded only by their acclaimed 2010 self-titled debut. Whereas their first LP provided listeners with an indie pop-rock sound, its follow-up veers more towards the synth-pop sounds of the 80’s with a twist of post-modern disco. Burtons’ music production is right on point, while Mercer’s brings his notoriously melancholic vocal style back to the table, as made evident through the success of the albums pre-released singles “Holding On For Life” and “After the Disco.” The album is rounded-out by the variety of sounds and emotions that define the remaining nine tracks.
It all opens with the futuristic techno-pop jam “A Perfect World.” Mercer wails “I thought love would always find a way, but I know better now / Got it figured out, it’s a perfect world all the same,” over the top of Burton’s appreciable instrumentation. The incorporation of a noticeably raw guitar solo adds to the songs overall depth, and contrasts the glittery sounds of the keys. Considering its ability to instantly grasp listener’s attention, “A Perfect World” is an effective and memorable opener.
The duo’s ability to write incredibly catchy hooks and riffs becomes even more evident on “Control”– an undeniably groovy track that pushes the albums post-modern disco vibe to new levels. Burton once again uses a grimy sounding guitar to contradict the clean sounds of organ and synth, while a hoppy bass-line ties it all together. As far as outro’s go, “Control” turns heads as a powerful horn section overpowers the softness of the keys to close the song out.
One of the most unique tracks on the album, “No Matter What You’re Told,” sees the keyboard taking a back seat as drum and bass take the lead. Ghostly harmonies are provided with a synthetic undertone, while an epic battle between the organ and guitar can be heard in the not so distant background. Once again, a tight horn section joins the party, giving this track one of the fullest sounds on the album. Mercer sings with an attitude, preaching, “We blow all our chances thinking we know all the answers.” Burton’s talents shine through the deeply rich instrumentation of the song (I literally notice more and more elements of sound each time I listen to it). Of all the songs on After the Disco, this one has quickly become one of my favorites.
Each half of Broken Bells brings their own unique talents and artistic visions to the drawing board, and in doing so have created a concoction of sound that has resulted in something spectacular. Their ability as a songwriting team comes across as easy, which is something to be admired by anyone who has taken a stab at the often frustrating art form. After the Disco provides evidence that sometimes the most random elements, mixed together, can create greatness; and that truly is something to get excited about.
Verdict: Excited / Quite Favorable
So, there you have it–two reviewers are all-in, head over heels in love, and one thought, well…the album pretty much sucked. Just another day in the hotly-contested world of music opinion. Don’t take our word for it, though; be the judge and catch the next Broken Bells show.
Article by Pauline Pechakjian, Adam Lalama, and Nicolas White