Broken Bells has always been an interesting side project for The Shins frontman James Mercer. First formed in 2008 but not announced until 2009, it came during a time when The Shins were going through some big changes. Every member was let go from the group with Mercer as the only exception. There was no news about forthcoming projects either leaving fans wondering if The Shins was taking an indefinite hiatus. The surprise announcement that Mercer and Brian Burton (Danger Mouse) had formed their own group called Broken Bells gave credence to this belief. When the absolutely outstanding self-titled album came out in 2010, people officially began to wonder: Will Mercer straddle both projects that have an overlapping fan base or would he favor one over the other?
Much to the delight of those very same fans, it was announced in 2011 that a new album by The Shins was coming in 2012. The new members that Mercer added in 2009 (most of whom are not with the band anymore) were able to create the phenomenal Port of Morrow, and the even newer members added in 2011 showed that The Shins was very much alive. But Broken Bells made massive waves with the self-titled album and fans started to wonder if THAT project was going to come back. The side project had officially grown to something greater than Mercer or Burton were ever able to predict. Instead of sacrificing one for the other, Mercer decided to keep both The Shins and Broken Bells alive. Now here we are with After the Disco, a follow-up to an out of left field hit that doesn’t quite reach the same levels set by its self-titled predecessor.
It’s easy to get the sense that After the Disco is a change-up of what made Broken Bells so great. The album starts off with the extremely poppy “Perfect World” that is not shy on its use of electronic keyboards. This is obviously extremely different from the overall gloomy feel of the entire Broken Bells album. That one was as far from dance pop as possible. After the Disco starts off with that exact tone however and then continues it with “After the Disco.” Even though I absolutely loved Broken Bells, I’m more likely to enjoy a more upbeat album than a down tempo one. I thought this change was great and I was gearing myself up for a newer form of Broken Bells. It looked like Mercer and Burton had their fill of down tempo and was ready to give us a different type of album. Something even more akin to The Shins.
Then “Holding on for Life” comes on in and the poppy momentum stops so suddenly you get whiplash. Now as you may or may not recall, our singles party staff wasn’t a big fan of this song which is the only single off the album. As its own song I’m not against it, but it doesn’t really fit within the confines of this album. It’s too different from anything in Broken Bells, meaning it lacks a nostalgia factor, and the high pitch singing belted out my Mercer makes it stand out like a sore thumb from the rest of these tracks. “Leave It Alone” continues the slowed down tempo right after, which is a much better song but is so reminiscent of the past that you begin to wonder where all those poppy changes went.
After “Leave It Alone” you get two more uptempo tracks with a tinge of synth in “The Changing Lights” and “Control.” It’s a welcome return to how the album initially began. But the reprieve is once again brief as we jump right back into another track that feels like a direct cut from Broken Bells with “Lazy Wonderland.” It’s at this moment that the biggest flaw of this album rears its head: it’s inconsistent. No matter how even remotely uptempo that Broken Bells got, it always had a consistent moodiness to it. There was a definitive sense of despair or dread with each track. After the Disco doesn’t have that. Some tracks you can legitimately dance to while others are better fit for sitting alone and staring out a window. You at times wonder if you’re even listening to the same album. It’s obvious that Mercer and Burton were going for a much more upbeat album this time around. Why they couldn’t make that work with every track is beyond me.
Outside of the jumbled tone, After the Disco is a definite step up in terms of production. Broken Bells at its core was a very stripped down album. The tracks had a very simplistic feel to them, a quality typically found in debut releases. Now it’s clear that Mercer and Burton were willing to go a step further in developing the individual sound for each song. Horns are added for beautiful effect in “Control” and string instruments give a very haunting feel to “The Angel and the Fool,” easily making it one of the tracks that would have had a home on the past release. Synthesizers were used to accentuate some songs in the past album, but now take center stage in tracks like “Perfect World.” While these are cases where the added production works, other tracks like the aforementioned “Holding on for Life” could have used a bit less and “Lazy Wonderland” could have used a bit more. Both negatively stand out for either being too much or too little.
At the end of the day though, After the Disco is a solid album overall. It may suffer from inconsistency but that doesn’t stop it from being another enjoyable release. People who like synth-rock (like myself) will absolutely love “Perfect World” and “The Changing Lights.” In fact, both are probably my favorite of the entire album. I also really liked the acoustic simplicity of “Leave It Alone.” I really don’t know how many people can say the same however. I feel like the recommended tracks to listen to honestly depend on how you feel at that very moment which again circles back to my original focus of negativity. If you’re able to keep your mind open to changes from track to track, you’ll find a lot to enjoy with this album. Any fan of Broken Bells or The Shins will find comfort here. Unfortunately, outsiders might feel a bit confused.