In today's music scene, collaborative projects are in abundance, and most come and go in the breeze of a passing album cycle. These projects and supergroups alike are always remembered by faithful fans, however, their cultural acclaim rarely exceeds that of the members' founding acts. In 2010, Broken Bells—the creative partnership of super producer Danger Mouse and James Mercer (The Shins) —released a debut album that placed them amongst their few predecessors who actually broke this trend. The blending of their two sound-opposing backgrounds seemed uncertain, yet Danger Mouse had at this point already made his name well-known as the wizardly mind with a hip-hop palate that finely polished a genre-bending array of works for artists like The Black Keys, Beck, Sparklehorse, and his other duo Gnarls Barkley. When combined with the acoustic strums, poignant songwriting, and familiar folksy croon of The Shins frontman, Broken Bells proved to be trail mix to the ears; in every track and every subsequent listen you tasted something new, something refreshingly vibrant. Fast forward four years and the Mouse-Mercer duo return with their follow-up, After the Disco; an album that's fallen victim to the sophomore curse, but for reasons only a collaborative act could encounter.
A year following the Broken Bells release, Danger Mouse partnered with Italian composer Daniele Luppi to assemble his own Spaghetti Western film score. The album was called Rome, and although it lacked a film's visuals, it carried the mood and narrative flow of the classic genre. After the Disco is the first album since then where Danger Mouse wasn't performing the sole duties of a producer and his cult film flare took advantage in its latest opportunity. Unlike Rome, however, the latest record embodies the spacey tone of a 60s sci-fi cult flick, a quality that was further justified through an accompanying series of short films starring Kate Mara and Anton Yelchin that possess a blatantly Barbarella mood. Perhaps there's a hidden agenda here;—maybe Danger Mouse is sick of having a mantle exclusively occupied by golden gramophones; maybe he's marketing his movie score potential.
The central issue with After the Disco is a rift caused by two divergent creative routes. Being a collaborative duo, Danger Mouse and James Mercer have spent four years apart, and four years working on an array of their own separate projects. Mercer's agenda on the latest Broken Bells record, however, doesn't seem too far from what could have been a solid game plan. Although lyrically the songs aren't very remarkable as they seem to follow a monotonous trend of a guy lost in uncertainty who longingly complains about girl, on a few tracks Mercer unleashes an incredible voice that calls into contrast the album's title. On "Holding On for Life" cardiac bass and acoustic rhythm pour out like smoke onto a dance floor engulfing feet that are being choreographed by the voice of a long-lost Gibb brother. And like this, on a few additional songs like the title track, the disco hustle actually seems to bite tightly onto the eerie, intergalactic tone. Other tracks, however, similar to the songs' lyrical theme, are riddled with uncertainty. While some echo their prior incarnations—"Leave It Alone" is dominated by a Black Keysian bluesy tone and in my notes I jotted "Holy Shins!" to describe "Lazy Wonderland"—others simply ring of completely unrelated artists' creations—through its ominous, New Age-y tone, one might recognize a familiar Blur riff in "Medicine". While the album's singles certainly shine, other tracks seem to occupy unremarkable space and time.
For Broken Bells to come back and make a mirrored follow-up to their debut would not only be impossible after their four-year lapse, but it would also be a disservice to the listener. And that's the beauty of collaborative side projects; they give the artists a sense of creative freedom as they break away from their everyday roles to discover and introduce us to new sounds. Unfortunately, Broken Bells' indecision led to simple regurgitation of their prior work that's underlined by a splintered tone of an earlier generation's genre that's still being scrutinized 40 years in the future.
After the Disco is out now via Columbia Records.