Broken Bells, the 2010 collaboration between producer Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) and The Shins lead singer and guitarist James Mercer, raised a few eyebrows when it was initially announced. But the blend of differing styles on offer served up an intriguing effort. Three years after the eponymous album the unlikely partnership are back with the follow-up, After The Disco.
The duo recently released two Jacob Gentry directed mini-films based around a short story penned by Burton that adds a visual dimension to the music, both being very much part of the whole experience. The science fiction story revolves around a dream – or maybe it’s a parallel universe – where the main character (Oliver), stumbles across an unconscious female astronaut (Helen) in the middle of a desert. The bizarre conclusion to the brief romantic encounter sees Oliver in a dancefloor clinch with another woman as Helen watches in shock from the sidelines before everyone suddenly appears decades older, possibly depicting how events can lead to a life without a true love.
The first three tracks of the album set high standards. Opener Perfect World begins very Kraftwerk like, its stunted motorik beat leading into a catchy synth melody apparently inspired by – and sounding like – Harold Faltermeyer. More bubbly synths, Mercer’s familiar vocals and some flashes of guitaring brilliance flesh out the song as lyrics hint at reflection, tying in with the overall ‘after the event’ theme. Another catchy number follows in the shape of the title track, its bouncy beat peppered with funky bass before a soaring chorus backed by gorgeously melodic synths takes over.
Eerie synths and subtle bass notes open classy single Holding On For Life, a track that the duo have admitted is probably their most adventurous effort. Simple yet stunningly effective acoustic strummings kick in before Mercer’s vocals declare “your secret’s safe in my hands”. Falsettos were all over the first album, and the addictive chorus here enters Bee Gees territory as it repeats the song title before a catchy melody takes hold.
From this point on the pace is mainly slower: Leave It Alone is delightfully mellow, built around harmonious vocal wailings, plucked guitar and backing synths whilst Lazy Wonderland sounds exactly like its title suggests – laid back acoustic guitar unexpectedly creates a Babybird feel with little accompaniment.
Medicine ticks along to a jangly beat rather uneventfully before No Matter What You’re Told ups the tempo again with an annoyingly catchy, poppy chorus. The Changing Lights is another upbeat track, pummelling drums accompanying vocals to create a work slightly reminiscent of ‘70s disco numbers, the vocal harmonies vaguely recollecting The Jacksons.
Control benefits from a simple bass line with repeated lyrics of “give it up” leading into a pleasantly memorable brass synth conclusion. Whilst album closer The Remains Of Rock And Roll represents a slightly dull ending with its unexciting sweeping synths and vocal melody, its predecessor Angel And The Fool – also the name given to the second mini-film – is arguably the most appealing of the slower tracks. A gradual, descending guitar line and bass note punctuations create a Portishead atmosphere while a moody vocal melody and synth strings complete the picture.
It’s testament to the quality of the opening trio of songs – rather than to the detriment of the others – that the album never really reaches the same heights again. When the bar is set so high at the outset it’s inevitable that the overall impression will suffer as they fade further into the distance. The temptation to skip back to the start will probably creep in after a few plays, but stick with it and further, less immediate treasures will be revealed.