There doesn’t seem to be much after the disco—that’s the message that Broken Bells’ newest LP seems to suggest. Tepid as that statement may sound, it isn’t a total condemnation. The two-piece side project of vocalist James Mercer (The Shins) and prolific producer-instrumentalist Brian Burton (Danger Mouse, Gnarls Barkley, etc.) have found their niche. The problem is, after finding it on their indie-pop eponymous debut, “After the Disco” largely sees them unwilling to budge.
There are a few deviations. The first single, “Holding on For Life,” is an exciting and surprising collision of Bee Gees falsettos and atmospheric synth-heavy production. However, save for a few other standout tracks near the album’s beginning, it’s an outlier. For the rest of the playlist, the duo largely relies on the recipe that made “Broken Bells” such an earworm. Danger Mouse beams in his extraterrestrial psychedelic beats, and Mercer supplies the melodious vocals and catchy hooks. The result isn’t interesting per se, but it’s because of this formulaic approach that fans of the band’s first album will likely be content with their newest offering. Disappointment arises only when the nature of the band is considered. It’s supposed to be a side project. That idea in itself promises innovation, variability, and a freedom to push the sonic envelope in a direction that no one wants The Shins to go. Yet, instead of flying, “After the Disco” just hovers, and the listener can’t help but feel underwhelmed.
Much of “After the Disco” feels like a continuation of their debut. The few tracks that do stand out shine brightly but are concentrated towards the beginning of the album. Like “Holding on for Life,” the titular “After the Disco” is another track that invokes the Gibb brothers, not only in Mercer’s impressive falsetto, but also in grooviness. It’s both a tease and a reminder of the sublime territory of psychedelic groove and refracted light that the album could have inherited. Another point of interest is “Leave It Alone,” a slow burner that forsakes the disco ball, instead employing bluesy synths and soulful, distortion-licked backing vocals. With the majority of the captivating and immediately catchy songs clustered near the top of the playlist, however, a temptation exists to ditch the album’s later songs for its shinier beginning.
It takes a couple listens for that temptation to subside, but when it does, the rest of the album opens up considerably. Such is the case with “Lazy Wonderland,” a song that sounds exactly as its title suggests. Though it’s easily forgotten when considered in the glimmering shadow of the album’s disco openers, it’s the perfect accompaniment to a lethargic weekday evening. Another lost high point is the second single, “Medicine.” The track is catchy and fun but could have been lifted from the band’s eponymous debut. There does exist a middle ground between the band’s old and new disco-flavored highlights. That ground is inhabited by “The Changing Lights,” with its funky downtempo baseline and spacious hook that explodes into a multicolored musical mushroom cloud.
“After the Disco” also fails to inspire lyrically. Devoid of imagery or inventiveness, Mercer’s lines often feel uninspired and occasionally cliché. The first lines of the album’s opener, “A Perfect World,” epitomize his unimaginative tendency to tell rather than show. He croons, “I’ve got nothing left, it’s kind of wonderful / cause there’s nothing they can take away.” Similar is the album’s closer, “The Remains of Rock and Roll,” where he declares, “I’m off to the promised land if anyone needs a ride / it’s a small car but we’ll fit inside if we leave our bags behind.” Mercer’s lyrics express what he wants them to, but they’re hardly noteworthy and never groundbreaking.
“After the Disco” is an album dip-dyed in disco. Its tips, roughly the first three tracks of its playlists, are saturated with the deep purple and blue hues of dreamy, psychedelic funk. However, as the album progresses, the catchy and moody pop of the band’s debut becomes more and more apparent. The result is an album that quickly previews innovation and dynamism only to retreat back to the safety of its original formula. It isn’t completely lackluster by any means, but despite Burton’s sublime production and Mercer’s on-point vocals, it doesn’t feel as good as it could have been. Whether that is attributed to laziness or trepidation, listeners can only hope that Broken Bells’ next effort will coax the duo out of its comfort zone.
—Staff writer Caleb M. Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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