Listen: After the Disco
Broken Bells (Columbia Records, 2014)
In the 2004 dramedy Garden State, Natalie Portman’s character hands Zach Braff’s Andrew a pair of headphones, declaring, “You gotta hear this one song. It’ll change your life.” With this one song—“New Slang”—indie rock outfit the Shins, led by James Mercer, captured an audience of early 20-somethings searching for their way in the world.
Listeners expecting Mercer to carry that same Simon & Garfunkel tone to his side project with artist-producer Brian Burton will be disappointed by Mercer’s departure from his Shins roots, but will ultimately be rewarded after a listen to this duo’s sophomore collaboration. On After the Disco, Broken Bells is less interested in making a carefree pop album than mashing up genres, namely late ’70s disco and early ’80s New Wave.
For that reason, the album is aptly named. You’re as likely to pick up on the influence of bands like the Bee Gees—Mercer channels Barry Gibb’s falsetto on “Holding On for Life,” while “Control” showcases disco’s chicken-scratch guitar and bubbly rhythms—as you are to hear echoes of Tears for Fears, as on the catchy title track that calls to mind their hit “Head Over Heels.” The combination is not as hard to pull off as you’d think; Burton’s synth beats complement Mercer’s melodic songwriting exceedingly well in the album’s more upbeat tracks.
The album’s scope expands even more with the addition of the Angel City String Orchestra featured on a few tracks. It is beautiful music made even more beautiful when accompanied by Mercer’s delivery of haunting lyrics like, “Well, I often wonder why / You want to win, but you won’t fight / So the candle just keeps burning down on you” on “The Changing Lights.”
After the Disco may not be the album that changes your life, but its parts come together impressively. At the least, the album might very well have the power to change your average day to a good one.
This article appeared in the August 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 8, page 42).