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Broken Bells
After The Disco Tom Hughes , February 14th, 2014 10:34

In March 2007 I was packed into the London Forum as the The Shins took to the stage for a show in support of their third album, Wincing The Night Away. A group of three "dudes" nearby were semi-ironically and boorishly heckling for the band to "play that song off Garden State". The lithium-heavy comedy-drama that had helped James Mercer's band rocket into indie popularity on both sides of the Atlantic, with its cult standing and Golden Globe-winning soundtrack, had given birth to the sort of gig-ruining attention that was present that night in Kentish Town.

Looking back, ten years after the film's release, Garden State has thankfully faded from public consciousness. Instead, Mercer finds himself with another millstone around his neck; the weight of past glories. Specifically, how to detach himself from The Shins' beloved work, and to what extent he even wants to forge a new identity under the Broken Bells moniker in the first place. During opener 'Perfect World' you wonder briefly if a yearning for reinvention has meant that Mercer is abandoning his melodic Midas touch in favour of awkward OMD imitation and a tired use of 80s synths. With relief this thought is banished thanks to the subtly of the verses, not to mention Mercer's incredible voice. His wistful, high vocals are as enigmatic and, above all, catchy as ever. Everything from Flake Music to The Shins relies on his vocals to lead the way, tie it all together and set it apart, and there’s no change here – which is by no means a bad thing.

On the chorus of 'The Changing Lights' and the entirety of 'Leave It Alone' Mercer's voice comes into its own, even more soulful and ambitious than ever, particularly due to the production that dresses his vocals lavishly with plucked guitar and rich backing vocals. Broken Bells' first album incorporated a lot of The Grey Album style jagged bursts of strings, cutting in like Danger Mouse's famous Beatles samples, with a consistently crackly, lo-fi tint. Whereas a sheen radiates from their second record. Even hand-claps used on 'Medicine' sound compressed and precise. You only have to listen to the brass conclusion of 'Control' or the luscious, full strings on 'Lazy Wonderland' to note that there's very little unpolished here and the smooth synthetic textures are unrelenting. After The Disco is like a digital remastering of old songs compared to the first album's more cassette tape feel.

In interviews the duo explained the record's title is all about ageing, and lyrics on the album's first two songs sum this up from two perspectives. 'After the Disco' shows a realisation and acceptance that the party's over and "the shine just faded away", but there’s still real optimism and idealism on 'Perfect World' when Mercer explains, "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". You could argue that there are oddly disco influences in Danger Mouse's production beyond the lustrous sound, and certainly on tracks like 'Holding on for Life' or 'The Changing Lights' the basslines and electronics have a real groove and high presence in the mix. But, further emblematic of a mature, older outlook, this is music most suitable for headphone-wearing commuter introspection.

Returning to the question of whether Mercer, at the second attempt, can create a record that confines the past to be viewed separately from his latest work. The answer is a resounding "no". Play After The Disco back to back with Port Of Morrow and the two intermingle almost imperceptibly, just as their eponymous debut bares a crackly, guitar-orientated resemblance to Oh, Inverted World - or even the earlier When You Land Here, It's Time to Return. Despite this, After The Disco is an exceptionally successful record filled with the type of uplifting melody we've come to expect from the pair, as well as more direct, clearer lyrics and an overall sharper edge. It might be basically more of the same for Mercer, only more frankly presenting this period of his life, but he's hit such a high standard in his younger days it's difficult to argue that more change was needed.

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