“What a lovely day to be lonely,” sings James Mercer midway through After the Disco‘s “Holding On for Life,” his choir-boy croon engulfed in a cosmic swirl of psychedelic synths and robotic hi-hat twitches. A throwaway line on paper, it’s nonetheless an apt reflection on Broken Bells’ sophomore LP, a headfirst plunge into exquisite melancholy.
At its most propulsive (“Holding On for Life,” the opening electro-kraut-rock epic, “Perfect World”), this is Mercer and Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton’s strange version of “disco,” both sprawling and hallucinatory. It is a more muscular, rhythmic sequel to their similarly spaced-out 2010 debut, but it also feels more like a true synthesis than that album — which (at its weakest) came off more like a fascinating meeting of giants than a real-life “band.”
In their separate projects (Mercer’s “other band” the Shins, Burton’s various production work and Gnarls Barkley), these guys are masters of their respective crafts. But together, their individual strengths reverberate off each other: On the simmering, string-bathed “The Angel and the Fool” and the very Chutes Too Narrow lullaby “Lazy Wonderland,” Burton’s gurgling, four-note bass riffs infuse a bluesy undercurrent into Mercer’s dewy-eyed melodies. (Or is it the other way around?) The best example of this fusion is late-LP highlight “Medicine”: Mercer doles out a liberal supply of hooks, each teasing out the soulfulness from Burton’s simple 4/4 trap kit and punky bassline. Finally, Broken Bells are a band.