Disco’s prominence may have cracked at the end of the ‘70s, but Brian Burton has never been afraid of a crazy collision of musical worlds (The Grey Album, Gnarls Barkley). So with him and James Mercer gluing Broken Bells back together for a second album, there’s no surprise that After the Disco is a little more out of this world: a disco-inspired space odyssey.
Burton – better known as producer Danger Mouse – and Mercer – the melodious voice behind indie rockers The Shins – finally came together as Broken Bells for their debut self-titled album in 2010, after deciding that they should collaborate back in 2004. The album garnered critical acclaim with Rolling Stone baptising them the years “coolest left field pop”, and received a Grammy nod for Best Alternative Music Album; just desserts for an experimental pop gem full of Mercer’s ascending choruses and Burton’s touches of slick synth and bass. After an EP follow-up in 2011 and word of a second album from early 2012, this latest release has been eagerly anticipated.
The opening track Perfect World sets the intergalactic tone of the album, with the opening bars feeling like they belong on the soundtrack for 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is propelled by synth, bass and kick-drums before Mercer’s transcendent voice steps in, typically introverted in reminding you that we’re alone in the universe, but the world is wonderful even without the fairytale of love. Following is the title track, which is where the disco vibe really launches; the slightly washed out vocals soaring into a Barry Gibb-inspired falsetto chorus. Holding on for Life, the first single, is more reminiscent of the first album with strummed acoustic guitars, but takes similar cues with more Bee Gee’s falsetto, and an alien synth dancing in and out, feeling like Mars is about to attack.
Tracks like Leave it Alone and The Changing Lights continue to rely on eerie and zippy synth, and just as the drum beats and bass lines start to feel repetitive and you think the album needs instrumental diversity, a horn section takes control and shifts it all to a more traditional rockier sound. Latter highlight Lazy Wonderland is just that, and feels like one The Beatles could have created, with Across the Universe vibes. No Matter What You’re Told introduces some distorted guitar, whereas The Angel and the Fool is a more stripped back strings and acoustic number. Closing track The Remains of Rock and Roll typify Mercer’s more dreamy, melancholic style.
After the Disco, when the music stops, mirror balls cease turning and the glitter is washed out of every crevice, what results is a cohesive record that takes off in the disco era before traversing the musical universe, given flight by a seventeen-piece orchestra and four-part choir. The amalgamation of Mercer’s harmonious song writing with the production qualities of Danger Mouse in paying homage to disco and retro-futurism is close to immaculate in it’s delivery. The themes came about by Mercer inadvertently tapping into a personal nostalgia of what he grew up on, and he can only be relieved that “everybody hears what I’m hearing”.