My wife often admits that her love for Nick Cave is tempered by his frequent flirtations with adult contemporary. The same could be said about my feelings toward James Mercer and Danger Mouse’s Broken Bells project: As two well-respected artists known for their stellar work separately, their partnership produced a surprisingly safe and unremarkable debut, the kind of effort you’d expect from the likes of Josh Groban, not the brains behind the Shins and the creative force behind The Grey Album. Though expectations are now lowered, Broken Bells’ follow-up, After the Disco, still somehow manages to disappoint.
After the Disco is exactly the album its title implies, tired and fading, the glow of the preceding party just a mere faint light. Its most compelling moments come in short, quiet spurts hidden between long junctures of filler, but the latter is what Mercer and Danger Mouse prefer to dwell on, spending inordinate amounts of time and effort on tidy plateaus of soft, folksy, electro-pop arrangements. The duo is at their best when things are left messy, like on the aptly titled “Leave It Alone,” a slow eulogy that derives much of its power from the loose placement of its instrumentation. As the track winds down to just a bass drum and an acoustic guitar, the sound of Mercer’s fingers moving across the frets becomes more prevalent, accompanying the most confessional portion of his lyrics. It’s a rare moment of rough-hewn intimacy on an album that, sadly, would rather stay distant and clinical.
Beyond the bittersweet folksiness of “Lazy Wonderland,” After the Disco offers few other emotional payoffs. There are several instances of utter banality: The title track is a predictable series of key changes relying on a bassline that could’ve been lifted from one of a dozen disco ballads, while “Holding on for Life” blatantly mines the Bee Gees for some lifeless falsetto choruses. Both songs are blank, mechanical efforts that cast doubt as to whether the album has any real raison d’être, unless its intent was to bore. Generic enough to have been produced by anyone, After the Disco is a yawner made by two artists whose impressive discography makes its failure that much more confounding.