Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Review: Broken Bells

Broken Bells
Broken Bells
Grade: One Golden Dove

It’s never easy to learn new things about things you already love. Because, if you love that thing, then you probably don’t want it to change that much, and if it does, you run the risk of loving it less. That’s never a good thing. That’s how I felt a few years ago when I listened to James Mercer’s acoustic set of a whole slew of Shins Songs. I was totally infatuated with the set, which he did for about five people at a radio station (don’t ask me where I got this, because I actually don’t know). I thought to myself, “Shit! Maybe I don’t like the Shins that much. I just love James Mercer’s songs.” With the rest of the band absent, I heard the songs louder and richer than ever before. It was only then that I was able to fully appreciate the genius of Mercer as a song writer. That doesn’t mean that I think that the rest of the members of the Shins are expendable. I really don’t. But, when I first heard news of Broken Bells, my immediate thoughts weren’t lamenting. 
  Brian Burton (Danger Mouse) and Mercer were well aware of the hype such a duo would stir. So, they took a pretty ingenious measure: they created more hype surrounding themselves than anyone else could have possibly mustered. Creating a hipster version of The Davinci Code, they had hordes of us deciphering binary code and listening to weird bloops and bleeps they published piecemeal on the website long before they released any songs. They took control of their own buzz, which is a remarkably insightful move…if you can live up to it.

Despite a collision of two seemingly irreconcilable (gasp!) genres, Broken Bells makes sense to me. Particularly when I go back and listen to songs like ‘Sleeping Lessons’ or ‘Sea Legs,’ Broken Bells sounds like the album that the Shins would have made if they were a band which makes music regularly. Although Burton seems to be in continuous collaboration, Mercer and the Shins crawl to each album. When an album gets as much attention as Chutes too Narrow did, four years is a long time to wait to create a follow up. Mercer is probably himself at the center of a lot of this hesitation, often expressing his insecurities as a lyricist and the insomnia that perpetuates (results from? complicates?) it.

Broken Bells is a dark, boding album. It may flash some Wayne-Coyne-worthy riffs and loops, but at its heart is an album about inevitability, and the lack of control that accompanies it. The lyrics are saturated with doubt, missed opportunities, and even some vulgarity (we get an F-bomb on Vaporize). He retains his complex lyrical and melodic structures, finding that unique way to say a lot without being overbearing or narrating. He can go from sweeping, didactic anthems (“This city, your culture, your modern day suffering is over, so what if it I love it?) to self-pitying reflection (“Where’d it go, all that precious time? Did we even try to stem the tide?”) with a fluidity and elegance that I’m starting to think only he can accomplish.

            Sonically, the album is full of suppressed energy. If Wincing the Night Away was an aquatic album, Bells is the Titanic. It was as though there was this energy-threshold set for the album, and anytime the energy of a song naturally approached this threshold, it was clipped by overpowering organs or simply an abrupt change in style. The Ghost Inside starts just like Regina Spektor’s Fidelity and features a Dirty Projectors-like melody in falsetto before Mercer drops about fifteen octaves just as the song is reaching its apex. The result is a sort of hesitancy. Mercer’s lyrics are plentiful, but they’re difficult to hear, as though he himself wasn’t quite ready for them to be published so he muffled them by distortion or by his own backing vocals.

 I wish I were this cool

            The acoustic guitar, which appears on almost every track, blends naturally into the industrial atmosphere that Burton creates, but this isn’t at all a surprise from someone of his caliber. There were a couple spots where the loops sounded a bit too much like a remix of the Mario Brothers 3 theme song (The Mall and Misery), but for the most part Burton’s additions were both thematically coherent and aurally interesting. The sounds are sinister and threatening, often creating a level of tension that these songs seem to beg for.

            James Mercer’s songs take time. And when they take their time, they surprise you. Before long you’ll be sitting at your desk and humming some incoherent syllables only to realize later that it’s Citizen you’ve had stuck in your head all day. You’ll go back to the song and listen to it again, this time paying attention to the lyrics. This time you’ll hear, “There’s no shortcut to a dream, there’s all blood and sweat, life is what you manage in between.” You’ll probably stop humming the song because it makes you a little uncomfortable, but you will remember it and listen to it again. It’s because I know these songs are going to reveal themselves to me in layers that makes it especially hard to judge so soon. With that said, the fact that it’s immediately noticeable that these songs are painstakingly thoughtful and deliberated speaks to the quality of the album.

Listen to the whole thing at NPR

--Igor German, Host: Is This Thing On (Sun 12-1 pm, Wed 9-10 pm)

1 comment:

igs said...


thank god for these guyzzz

also i heard they're coming to georgetown