When producer Brian Joseph Burton (also known as Danger Mouse), and founder of The Shins James Mercer came together to form Broken Bells in 2009, it was no surprise that their first, self-titled album made it to No. 7 on the Billboard 200 and every show sold out on their first tour. Now, they’re at it again with “After the Disco,” a cool, upbeat, retro-pop mix of body-moving beats and futuristic sounds.
Track by track, listeners are taken down the rabbit hole into a deep synthetic disco sound, the past revisited by the present on new grounds. An acoustic guitar fills in the spaces between a walking bass line. In one song, non-lexical vocals melt into the music, met by mellow chord progressions, while upbeat verses filled with percussive melody take over the next.
In tracks like “Holding On for Life,” there’s an obvious likeness to the Bee Gees, but the choruses of high-pitched harmonies lead to verses still reminiscent of mellow Shins-style vocals. In “Perfect World,” the album’s opening track, Mercer’s familiar voice takes on a new-wave feel, the lyrics blooming through the instrumentals as hollow-saw synth sounds transform into a deep percussive melody.
“After the Disco” shows off the duo’s versatility with the song’s prominent bass line, steady beat and high ranged lead synth, sending us backward through time, dancing down a polychromatic passage to the ticks of a horizontal clock. The lyrics are surrealist at best, and lines like “And I’m not the dreamer or the dream you’re out there looking for” are good to have in mind if you need to break someone’s heart.
The most memorable track of the album, however, is either “Lazy Wonderland” or “The Angel and the Fool.” “Lazy Wonderland” has a psychedelic Woodstock feel that makes you want to lie in fields of flowers, staring up into space. In “The Angel and the Fool,” a sad-sounding minor chord progression and whistling lead melody show off the duo’s masterful musicianship, along with beautiful orchestral components that fill in the background and add to the melancholy mood of the song’s story. Lyrics like “She found herself in a world full of men / watching them slowly destroy all her plans” and “She falls down, and I can’t do enough / but I won’t ever let her give up” are relevant to anyone, regardless of gender.
“After the Disco” makes it clear that Broken Bells is here to establish themselves as more than just an experiment carried out by two of the music industry’s most multi-faceted musicians. It’s an artistic endeavor to mesh sound, story and the rises and pitfalls of time into a soundtrack that pushes the past to the present and brings us the future.