Originally published: Virgin Music
In 1965, Elliott Jaques – a Canadian psychoanalyst and organisational psychologist – coined the term ‘Midlife Crisis’. The phrase was used to describe a period of dramatic self-doubt that is felt by some individuals in the middle age of life, as a result of sensing the pass of their own youth and the imminence of their old age. The term has been satirised since, illustrating rotund, slightly balding middle-aged men who have spent their lives working monotonous jobs to jack it all in and relive their youth vicariously through their children, smoking pot, working out and lusting for their nubile friends – or so Sam Mendes’ ‘American Beauty’ would have you believe.
Broken Bells’ eponymous debut is something of an aural equivalent. A collaboration between the unlikely pairing of The Shins’s James Mercer, 39, and iconic producer Danger Mouse, 32. The two’s vision through the haze of midlife-doubt sees them unite in search of a sound that is fitting of their talents and maturation, and a shared love of early sci-fi and its nostalgic optimism.
The result is a surprisingly cohesive and grown-up album that is concerned more with the artefact as a whole and its experimental endeavours than pumping out ubiquitous singles such as “Crazy” and “New Slang”. As if to bolster the projects intent and earnest so that it is not written-off as a mere one-off collaboration, Danger Mouse is billed under his real name, Brian Burton, for the first time.
Recorded in secret at Burton’s Los Angeles-based studio in 2008, the hype that followed at the hands of Sony/Columbia records amounted in the Broken Bells project becoming a viral hit of interest and intrigue via the Net. Newsletters dispatched by the label on December 14 with a binary-coded message stating ‘The High Road is hard to find’ uncovered anagrammatically arranged links of the band’s name (ebbelkslorn.com, berobknells.com, oebkenllbsr.com), which redirected the recipient to their official site and looped melodic sound bites.
The marketing ploy piqued interest enough that when the news came that their first single, “The High Road”, would be released as a free download, it topped the US iTunes Single of the Week chart. Despite the free gift giveaway as a taster of what was to come, the album was leaked onto Bit Torrent a week later – something of an ironic kick in the teeth for Burton who found fame infamously dodging copyright cabals after cutting and pasting Jay-Z’s ‘The Black Album’ and The Beatles’ self-titled LP (more commonly known as ‘The White Album’) to create the aptly named ‘The Grey Album’ in 2004.
In all, the two artists are deferential towards each other’s talents and techniques in creating a unifying sound and sentiment. “The High Road” opens the album with playfully computerised glitches that have become the trademark twists, turns and layers that Burton has become recognised for. A twee sci-fi sheen that coverts the track before an anchored low-end baseline steadily whomps beneath the flourishing West Coast harmonies of Mercer. Again, on the likes of “Vaporize” and “Your Head Is on Fire” you can distinctly differentiate between the Mercer’s melody and Burton’s rhythmic detail – something that on paper should not fit, but does on record.
Retrospective and romantic, ‘Broken Bells’ is unlikely to produce any chart-topping singles, but it does throw out a few listenable and catchy gems. “The Ghost Inside” bounces to fashionably disco-dubbed baselines and well-timed handclaps that carry Mercer’s stretched falsetto akin to Michael Jackson and Prince; the dark electronic intonations that drive “Mongrel Heart” pulsating Whitest Boy Alive dance-ability; or cinematic strings that pour life and beauty into “The Mall and Misery”’s stuttering dancefloor hooks.
There is the occasional glum haze of meandering regression (“Sailing To Nowhere”, “Trap Door”, “Citizen”) that you would come to expect of such an odd collaborative couple, but you can almost forgive them for the clarity and understanding that resides in an otherwise interesting and exploratory listen into two artists striving for change mid-career/life crisis.