After the Disco rides that morning after wave, holding up a mirror to cast a dark reflection on the fun that's come and gone.
Coming down from a night of partying is often a dismal experience. The wilder the good time is, the follow-up comes in proportionate dreariness, inverting the previous pleasure. Riding that morning after wave, occupying that day of lonely self-reflection is Broken Bells’ sophomore LP, After the Disco. The title itself conveys this sentiment, and a thread runs through the 11 songs bolstering the melancholia, holding up a mirror to cast a dark reflection on the fun that’s come and gone. Yet the gloom here is not oppressive, more bittersweet and, as such, more in line with the wistfulness that accompanies those hangover days.
The first trio of songs establishes this theme of post-merriment via James Mercer’s second-person cautionary tales and Danger Mouse/Brian Burton’s evocative aural pastiches. “A Perfect World” opens up timidly, like a groggy man rising from bed, before being swept up in propulsive beats. It’s as if one is trying to outrun something, thin synth lines spinning out frantically in all directions. Amid this tapestry, Mercer serves up line after line of ambivalence and of shedding what held you back and trying to appreciate it as freedom rather than destitution. “I got nothing left," he sings almost self-pitying, before adding the silver lining of “It’s kinda wonderful / ‘Cause there’s nothing they can take away." At the chorus, an energized phase shift occurs, ratcheting up the tempo with Mercer’s vocals moving to a higher register as he declares a forfeiture of youthful idealism — “I thought love would always find a way / I know better now / Got it figured out." But then comes the addendum catch, “It’s a perfect world anyway," leaving listeners to decide if the tune is depicting a fall to cynicism or attaining a mature degree of acceptance. A frenzied guitar solo that is more ‘80s underground than one would place with Broken Bells then ushers the song out, or so it seems until it reemerges with staid beats and minimal vibraphone work.
The title track then arrives, all stark synth spires and bouncing bass. The dance rhythms here almost feel satirical, expressing a struggle to keep a waning party going. The dance floor has its last legs limping across it, the party is beyond winding down, and as such, it’s an adroit lead-in for “Holding on for Life”. A bass line pregnant with foreboding thumps along as the distant strum of an acoustic guitar is looped. The negative space between bass notes draws attention to the abyss being addressed, the synthesizers’ sci-fi soundtrack tones sounding like a theremin. It’s the blueprint of a maleficent disco, and with Mercer obviously aping the Bee Gees in the vocal hook and falsetto of the refrain, it’s presenting the underbelly of the hedonist mindset, exposing the last reveler left behind while all others have moved on. As Mercer sings in the chorus’s preface, “What a lovely day to be lonely”, a motto that could be delusional comfort or self-deprecation to the piece’s central character.
With the palette set by these first songs, After the Disco breathes a little more and finds Broken Bells stretching from their comfort zone. “The Changing Lights” drives forward with a desperate urgency to move on to a place not yet known. “Leave It Alone” starts with the rusty creakiness of rural blues (perhaps marking a Sparklehorse influence, whom both Burton and Mercer collaborated with on Dark Night of the Soul) before swelling to include nouveau gospel backing vocals. Toward the end, it fades into a muted ballad of melodious guitar, piano and embellished strings. “Control” has a noir bass rhythm and casts a jittery effect, Mercer singing a message of impermanence and why this fleeting quality makes control itself an illusion. Again, that duality of whether this is fatalistic or liberating is up to the perspective one brings to the album, but the horn section that ends the song in a big band bluster indicates the sentiment is more cause for celebration than grief.
On the more whimsical front are “Lazy Wonderland”, aptly titled and bearing more similarity to a Shins song than anything else on the record, and “The Angel and the Fool”. The latter in particular is lethargic and uneasy, but still captivating, reminiscent of a Nick Drake number or Doors ballad. “The Remains of Rock and Roll” then serves as a grandiose exit, with Mercer’s layered vocals and Burton going full bore. There’s a palpable build-up for the first minute and a half, but when the verses erupt in the refrain, it’s a rewarding break-through bordering on anthemic, Mercer singing, “We prefer good love to gold / And the remains of rock and roll." Carried off on a stream of violins, a wall of synths and distorted guitar, the song serves to regain the vitality that the record previously charted the loss of.
As a whole, After the Disco finds Broken Bells no longer feeling like a side project. There is a degree of consistency and focus not present on their eponymous debut. The tracklist does not let up or get bogged down with filler between a few stellar songs, as defined their first release. Mercer and Burton have settled into the nature of their collaboration and After the Disco shows that Broken Bells has its own identity as much as its members’ other endeavors.