Broken Bells - Broken Bells
On paper, this really does seem like the dream collaboration: James Mercer, the singer-songwriter from The Shins teaming up with still-in-vogue producer Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, aka that chap responsible for The Grey Album and ‘Crazy’. On record, while it fails to reach the dizzy heights of either man’s best material, Broken Bells still contains enough hooks and melodies throughout to burrow its way into your head and refuse to leave until long after the last song fades out.
Production-wise, the record holds no great surprises for anyone familiar with Danger Mouse’s recent output – his work with the late, great Mark Linkous on the Dark Night Of The Soul record being the most obvious reference point. It’s no coincidence that Mercer sang a couple of tunes as guest on that album, and this record largely picks up where the duo left off. Drums squelch rather than thump, acoustic guitars float throughout the mix, and subtle string arrangements lend the songs a lushness that can almost distract from the bleakness of the lyrics. Almost.
Mercer’s words have sometimes come dangerously close to self-pity over the years, but his sheer knack for a gorgeous melody makes him unique among his peers. On the page, they can often read like the sad thoughts of a lonely guy, wallowing in loss. Yet on this album, while sorrow remains a prevailing theme, he sounds like he’s resolutely trying to move on and make a fresh start, both musically and personally. Proof of this comes as early as album opener ‘The High Road’, Mercer seemingly forging ahead, but with perhaps a few tears still left in his eyes: “‘Cause they know, and so do I / The high road is hard to find / A detour to your new life / Tell all of your friends goodbye / It's too late to change your mind / You let loss be your guide” he sings, which doesn’t bode well for a Shins reunion anytime soon.
Repeated listens allow the album to open up; ‘The Ghost Inside’ is just one of several cuts you could happily listen to a dozen times in a row, Mercer’s falsetto soaring over playful handclaps and Gnarls Barkleyesque synths. Other highlights include the string-laden ‘Sailing to Nowhere’ and the shimmering ‘Citizen’, the latter a track so gloomy-but-optimistic that E from Eels would be happy to call it his own.
Not a massive departure, then, for either half of this duo, just a damn good album. Broken Bells should deliver on the expectations of most fans, and when the tunes are this good there’s really nothing wrong with that.
With The Shins on hiatus for the foreseeable future, frontman James Mercer teamed up with Gorillaz/Beck/Gnarls Barkley producer Danger Mouse to put together this collection of mid-tempo, blissed-out pop songs. The lyrics were somber and the mood undeniably dark, but as usual Mercer’s incredible voice managed to elevate songs like ‘The Ghost Inside’ and lead single ‘The High Road’ to something close to uplifting. Add to this Danger Mouse’s patented knack for daubing his songs with dashes of bright colour, and you’re left with one of the freshest listening experiences of the year. (Review)