James Mercer and Brian Burton first hooked up in 2010, three years into a seemingly endless hiatus for the Shins and hot off Danger Mouse collaborations with Beck, Sparklehorse, and the Black Keys. Their eponymous LP, Broken Bells, was something of a curio – Mercer’s unparalleled songwriting talent and ear for hooks, combined with Burton’s funky, electronic sensibilities, yielded an album that was cooler than it had any right to be. Admittedly, Broken Bells was most valuable to me because it was looking more and more like there was never going to be a follow-up to the excellent Wincing the Night Away; as a fan of the Shins, I’d take what I could get.
But then Mercer came back last year with Port of Morrow, a brilliant return to form for the band that helped launch Zach Braff’s directing career. So was anyone really clamoring for another Broken Bells record? We got what we really wanted, right? If Broken Bells was the impromptu dance party you and your friends had in the kitchen after a night of hitting the bars, the follow-up, After the Disco, is the post-party depression that comes along with a hangover and a trashed house. Sure, it was fun, but at what cost? Empty bottles everywhere, sticky beer all over the hardwood floor, cigarette ashes on the couch after you specifically asked them not to smoke inside, goddamn it. Is that a bit of puke in the sink?
The record starts out promisingly enough; the one-two punch of glitchy new wave opener “Perfect World” and the effervescent, upbeat title track put the album into comfortable, if familiar, territory. But it doesn’t take long for the record to just sort of…deflate. Mercer, who for my money is one of the best working songwriters alive, sounds bored more often than inspired, and Burton’s complex arrangements, replete with squelchy synths and overwrought strings, drag the tracks down as often as they buoy them up. It’s almost as if the two musicians bring out the worst in each other.
Too often, the album veers into experimental territory, which is a mistake, given how talented the pair is when working with straightforward pop sensibilities. Mid-tempo jams like “Leave It Alone”, “The Angel and the Fool”, and (most egregiously, considering its pompous title) “The Remains of Rock & Roll” limp by for what seems like forever. It’s certainly not all bad, though. Jittering drums and Bee Gees-esque falsetto elevate lead single “Holding On for Life” into instant earworm territory. The blaring horns and ping-ponging bass of “Control” call to mind a lost Gorillaz or Gnarls Barkley track. The jangling, warbly guitars on “Lazy Wonderland” would sound at home on a Shins record.
On paper, it should be amazing; in practice, it’s really a shame that Broken Bells can’t produce something more exciting than this. It’s just a little strange that the album isn’t more solid, considering how easily both men usually take to collaboration. Mercer, somewhat infamously, split up with the other members of the Shins following the tour for Wincing the Night Away. Since then, he’s made a habit of collaborating with musicians and producers while maintaining that, as an auteur, he is the Shins. Burton, for his part, has more or less made a name for himself by producing and contributing with established acts. There’s plenty here for a casual listener to enjoy; a more hardcore fan of either will find themselves left with a niggling sense of disappointment. That’s not to say After the Disco isn’t worth your time; just that you may not find yourself returning to this record too often.