It’s difficult to overstate just how staggering of a misfire After the Disco is for Broken Bells. The side-project(?) of The Shins’ James Mercer and producer Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton), Broken Bells debuted in 2010 with an eponymous full-length of casually soulful indie rock that registered as- at best- irrepressibly endearing and- at worst- imminently listenable. If Broken Bells slightly underwhelmed, it was only due to the sheer talent involved and not the insidious nature of the album’s relentlessly (and I mean relentlessly) hook-laden tracks. The world wasn’t exactly clamoring for a second album; but it was easy to assume that a more evolved out-of-necessity follow-up release could be a real doozy.
This brings us to After the Disco. Veering lazily between seventies-era dancefloor tropes and softcore radio kitsch, After the Disco should be the catalyst that slams the door shut on the eye-rollingly ironic revival of adult contemporary music. Much more than on their debut, Mercer and Burton merely go through the motions, opting to play dress-up in lieu of inspiration. Consider “Holding Out For Life”, the album’s lead single and arguably best track where Mercer wholeheartedly riffs on the Bee Gees during the unending falsetto-fueled chorus. Once Broken Bells establish this winking acknowledgement, the song’s only recourse is to repeat itself until it inevitably morphs from homage to all-out ripoff (repeat: this is After the Disco’s best track). All of the album is constructed in the same hollow manner, superficially alternating between criminal overlength (album opener “Perfect World” registers as a strong four-minute song stretched out over an interminable six-plus minutes, “Lazy Wonderland” is another offender) and bizarre atonal shifts (“After the Disco”, “No Matter What You’re Told”) that bring any momentum to an abrupt standstill. It’s only on “Medicine” and penultimate track “The Angel and the Fool” where Broken Bells briefly comes to life, mainly because both songs could seamlessly fit within the well-worn comfort of the band’s previous release. Somehow both self-indulgent and aloof, After the Disco reduces the once-promising Broken Bells to a campy husk, garishly pointing at thrift store iconography without daring to explore inside.