James Mercer introduced Broken Bells — his collaboration with Brian Burton, a.k.a. eclectic producer Danger Mouse — at a time when his primary band, The Shins, was starting to show signs of wear. Their 2007 album, Wincing the Night Away, was missing much of the verve and wonder of their first two albums, and not long thereafter, Mercer had parted ways with the rest of the band, later enlisting members of Crystal Skulls and Modest Mouse for a new phase of The Shins. Yet just as one band was running low on steam, Mercer was showing a newly inspired side of his musical persona with Broken Bells, a project that leaned much heavier on electronics and yielded both a knockout self-titled debut and a pair of standout singles in “The High Road” and “The Ghost Inside.”
It turns out that wasn’t a fluke — not even close. Side projects between two or more high-profile collaborators don’t generally get by on longevity, even if the rare act like Gorillaz can manage to keep it going for a decade. With After The Disco — Broken Bells’ second full-length album — Mercer and Burton up the ante with a set that builds on the promise of their debut and fleshes out that aesthetic into an even stronger set of songs with loftier ambitions. They’re still very much focused on hook-laden and soulful indie-disco, but with orchestral touches and just enough prog-rock influence to give the album an epic feel.
In fact, “epic” is really the only proper way to characterize opening track “Perfect World,” which emerges from atmospheric ether with a pulsing post-punk bassline and Kraftwerk-inspired synths, and builds to a magnificent chorus. And though this sets the bar high a bit early, what follows is equally dazzling. The title track is an infectious nugget of synth funk that showcases Mercer’s impressive vocal range, while “Holding On for Life” finds the duo channeling both Saturday Night Fever-era Bee Gees and in its bridge, The Beatles, without coming across as mere pastiche.
After The Disco’s closing track is titled “The Remains of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” and given how wonderfully Mercer has given himself to pop, he could just as well scatter those remains in the sea without looking back, and that would be just fine. Appropriately enough, the song itself is a glorious slice of electronic pop, which finds Mercer asking, “Is something wrong? / You don’t look like you’re having fun.” Quite the contrary, James — I’m having a blast.