Broken Bells – Broken Bells (March 2010)

So when it was revealed to us that half of Gnarls Barkley would be playing drums and producing a side project of James Mercer of The Shins, the best The Velvet Underground copycat this side of the third millennium, we expected something different than the atmospheric ten song collection that wavers from anthemic to poppy and back.  The self-titled album Broken Bells echoes The Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead in its mood while also bringing out Mercer’s best-seen vocals, and Broken Bells is the best album he’s been involved in since 2003’s Chutes Too Narrow, The Shins’ call-back to The VU’s Loaded, and Danger Mouse’s beats are as impressive as they were on Gnarls Barkley’s St. ElsewhereBroken Bells is a treat because of the duo’s unexpected chemistry; Danger Mouse works better with Mercer than he worked with Cee-Lo Green.

Despite the formidable discographies of each artist, especially with Danger Mouse having done work on the 2006 smash hit “Crazy”, the leading track “The High Road” is the best song that either party has worked on.  “The High Road” works both as a story of apocalypse, which worked wonders when I first listened to the song while reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and as a metaphor for morality and taking the road.  Two whispered verses that detail “The dawn to end all nights/That’s all we hoped it was” and two triumphant then choral choruses that finish with a choir singing “’Cause they know and so do I/The high road is hard to find/A detour in your new life/Tell all of your friends goodbye” are followed by a brief but beautiful acoustic guitar interlude that leads into the repeated ending lyrics.  “It’s too late to change your mind/You let law be your guide” is astonishing not because of the lyric itself, but because Mercer abstains from singing it mockingly or pitifully and instead chooses to evoke fond admiration.  You might have not found the high road, and there’s little you can do to fix that now, but Mercer respects that you tried.

Despite “The High Road” being the best song by a wide margin, each song has something enjoyable to revel in.  Whether it’s the cheerful progressions of the guitar and bass on “Vaporize”, Mercer’s falsetto in “The Ghost Inside”, or the doomed feeling of the final track “The Mall And Misery”, each song might be your favorite.  The aforementioned finale booms of our city, our culture, and our suffering mother, and Mercer’s final words of the album, “So what if/I love it?/I can’t help it/That’s all”, leave the listener in a slightly startled state of mind.

There are just about no flaws that I can find in Broken Bells, though the best material outshines the lesser songs by a significant amount.  It feels odd to criticize these two artists for lack of ambition, but I think that if they reached for the stars as they did on the first on final tracks, they could have produced something exceptional rather than something that’s merely great.

B+

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Published in: on March 11, 2010 at 6:40 AM  Leave a Comment  

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