Broken Bells are a collaboration between two guys who sit at very different tables in the music-biz lunchroom. Danger Mouse is a hip-hop-savant-turned-L.A.-superproducer (his credits include Gnarls Barkley, the Black Keys and the next U2 record); James Mercer of the Shins is a singer-songwriter who lives in Portland, Oregon (his credits include a raft of finely wrought indie-pop records, a wife and kids, and a well-kept beard). The idea of these two working together is like an endearing mumblecore actor signing on with a big-budget Hollywood sci-fi director.
Broken Bells’ 2010 debut was a radiant haze of cushy beats, bloopy synth squiggles and bright, cottony melodies – evocatively spacey music that seemed like it wasn’t entirely sure in which direction it wanted to roam. The album’s alternative-radio hit “The High Road” was an ambling missive on the tension between ambition and indecision.
The follow-up feels more cohesive, with tighter songs and a stronger mood. Like the Shins‘ underrated 2012 album, Port of Morrow, the tellingly titled After the Disco is at once sleek and world-weary, often homing in on that sexy moment of malaise when the Seventies wanted to turn into the Eighties so badly but didn’t quite know how to do it yet. “I see the ashes on the ground, I know the world is burning down. . . ./After the disco, all of the shine just faded away,” Mercer sings on the title track, which Halls enough Oates to feed a team of Clydesdales. “Control” sets jaded words to a Steely Dan-slick groove; on “Perfect World,” sad New Wave synths and tinted-glass guitar flash offset lyrics about environmental collapse as a metaphor for emotional distress (or maybe vice versa).
Danger Mouse has always been an ace at coming up with kicky sounds for shaky mental states – think of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” a worldwide R&B hit about weirdness as a badge of honor. Here, the producer’s hippie chorales, clipped horns and spaghetti-Western guitars nail a similar mood, whether on Mercer’s barbed acoustic kiss-off “Leave It Alone” or on “No Matter What You’re Told,” a bit of Bowie-adjacent retro-futurism about missed signs and lost minds.
There are some too-cute moments on After the Disco. (“We prefer good love to gold and the remains of rock & roll,” Mercer offers over gloppy strings on “Remains of Rock & Roll.”) But, usually, the album is smart, catchy and pretty funny in itsmarriage of smoothness and geekiness. Its best song is the single “Holding On for Life,” a somber white-boy boogie complete with strobe-lit Bee Gees harmonies and haunted wide-lapel keyboards. Mercer sings to a hard-luck hooker who’s lost and alone “in the Latin Quarter,” and who also might be “from another time.” He nails the Seventies sensitive-mustache thing where you talk to a vulnerable woman like she’s a small child, crooning, “Let me buy an hour, maybe help me to understand.” Is it good enough to make the Top 40 in 1978? Maybe. Is it a top candidate for 2014’s best song about a distraught prostitute who’s probably a misunderstood time traveler? Totally.