‘Supergroup’ is a word that’s fallen out of vogue lately, having become synonymous with unions that aren’t built to last and albums that seldom add up to the sum of their parts. Disappointment and frustration seem inherent in the concept itself, regardless of whether the music is any good or not – the wait for another The Good, The Bad & The Queen record, for example, feels as endless as The Dead Weather’s next does inevitable. Yet while Broken Bells’ individual elements – Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse) and James Mercer (founder of The Shins) – certainly qualify as ‘super’, the undisputed It-producer of the last decade and His Royal alt.ness of post-millennial US indie have been unequivocal about the fact that this is not some casual, it-happens-when-it-happens side-project, but their primary creative outlet. Broken Bells is a priority, not just a passion.
Certainly, it’s easy to see what they each get out of the arrangement: for Burton, it’s another opportunity to prove he’s as adept at writing great pop music as he is at producing it, while for Mercer the partnership offers a respite from the buck-stops-here autonomy that comes with being The Shins’ top banana. Despite that, however, the duo’s self-titled 2010 debut didn’t quite live up to its premise, sounding less like its own distinct entity and more like The Shins with Danger Mouse behind the control desk. That’s not nearly as much of an issue with this second album, although the habit does persist on a couple of tracks, notably the vanilla-flavoured indie-folk of ‘Lazy Wonderland’ and ‘The Angel And The Fool’, which attempts the age-old gambit of breathing life into an inconspicuous wisp of a song by artlessly plonking an electronic beat on top of it.
For the most part, though, ‘After The Disco’ unfolds at a fertile equidistance from each man’s comfort zone (inasmuch as a polymath like Burton can be said to have one) and the results are a marked improvement. The lead single, ‘Holding On For Life’, is just great: a sobering sketch of a young prostitute “trying not to look so young and miserable” on the streets of Paris, which takes flight on a Barry Gibb chorus that comes out of nowhere. The disco influence isn’t as prevalent as the album’s name might suggest – though the title track does evoke the feeling of walking home from the club on your own at 120 melancholic beats per minute – but there is a strong R&B current running through the likes of ‘Leave It Alone’ and ‘The Remains Of Rock And Roll’, whose kitschy Hollywood strings make it sound like a still-distant future as imagined from the vantage point of the past.
Ultimately, however, the album’s success hinges on the most obvious things imaginable: the songs are better, the hooks are bigger and the choruses are more memorable. Listening to the synths of ‘Perfect World’ (think Jan Hammer’s Miami Vice soundtrack, ‘Crockett’s Theme’, with its dinner-jacket sleeves hoisted higher for extra urgency), or the way the happily married Mercer becomes a willing vessel for Burton’s lyrical musings on his more solitary life, it also feels as though they better understand each other’s strengths – Burton as discerning pop aesthete, Mercer as melodic master craftsman – and know how to play to them without becoming beholden to them. If Broken Bells is to end up as their day job, then it’s one they’re improving at all the time.