By Chris Moore:
RATING: 4 / 5 stars
Having never heard a Shins album (or even as much as a thirty-second preview clip of a Shins song), I came to Broken Bells with no expectations or preconceived notions of how it should sound. To be fair, that isn’t entirely accurate. Seeing Danger Mouse’s name in the mix made me wonder just how experimental, or just how “far out,” this would be. When my wondering gave way to actual listening, I found something I hadn’t expected.
Simply stated, Broken Bells is a beautiful collage of influences finely knit together with unique modern qualities that set this record distinctly apart from the jurisdiction of terms like “retro” or “derivative.”
Still, never in one album have I found such a wide range of interesting influences. Here and there, a pinch at a time, I have perceived subtle flecks of styles from the Beach Boys to Elliott Smith to Weezer to Phantom Planet and back to the Bee Gees, or perhaps the Scissor Sisters. As was the case with his collaboration with Beck on 2008’s Modern Guilt, Danger Mouse’s more synthetic sounds and beats are finely balanced out by the more conventional instrumentation and sensibilities of the Shins’ lead vocalist and guitarist James Mercer. Between the two, Broken Bells is a celebration of many sounds that have come before, newly contextualized and altered here to create something new, something all their own.
This is also the rare record that only gets better as it stretches out. Without question, the first two tracks are the standout efforts of the album. That being said, the album does lag a bit after them, particularly after “Your Head is On Fire” fades out. However, as the second half of the album kicks off with “Trap Doors,” it is only onward and upward from there. By the time “The Mall & Misery” closes the album, it would be difficult to deny another go-round kicked off by lead single and opening track “The High Road.”
“The High Road” is an excellent choice for leading off the album, as well as representing it as a single. Danger Mouse’s synthesized sounds somehow manage to appear random while obviously being the result of a very purposeful pattern. Under all the layers lies a fairly straightforward piano ballad, a simplicity that is realized in the stripped-down outro.
From the piano and vocal fade follows the acoustic and vocal intro to “Vaporize,” another standout track on the album. This is where Broken Bells start to lay out some of the themes that will follow in the songs to come. As Mercer sings, “Common fears start to multiply; we realize we’re paralyzed.” He continues, “It’s not too late to feel a little more alive.”
What an excellent lyrical anchor for an album that is all about shaking up the format.
“Your Head is On Fire” is a particularly fascinating track. It kicks off with instrumentation and a vocal arrangement that strongly conjures seventies Beach Boys (my favorite!), with a particularly heavy emphasis on sounds characteristic of Dennis Wilson’s solo effort Pacific Ocean Blue. By the time the acoustic guitars strum in, the song proceeds to a second movement, but it does return for one more retro romp in the outro that would have felt right at home on SMiLE.
The following two tracks — “The Ghost Inside” and “Sailing to Nowhere” — carve out a clearer idea of what the Broken Bells sound is going to be. Although they are strong tracks, they are the sort of fare you might expect in the half to three-quarters swampland of your typical record.
Instead, Broken Bells comes alive with new vitality in that region, kicking off with the steady beat and buildup of “Trap Doors,” followed closely by the multi-movement “Citizen.” The latter peaks with an essential question: “From the moment that we’re born, ’til we’re old and tired out: Do we ever know?”
The opening piano riff of “October” may conjure Phantom Planet’s “California,” but it quickly progresses into the multi-vocal attack that Broken Bells have asserted as their own throughout this record. And the pace isn’t lost on the low-register vocals of the next track, the beat-driven “Mongrel Heart.”
The aforementioned “Mongrel Heart” blends seamlessly into the album’s final stop. “The Mall & Misery” is an exercise in perfect timing, another gorgeous mixture of beautiful acoustic guitars, lush harmonies, and a bed of beats and other synthesized sounds. “Use your intuition; it’s all you’ve got,” Mercer declares. Every lyric resource on the Internet seems to disagree with me, but I read the refrain as “I know what I know will not fill a thimble.” I won’t even share what the misconception (?) is; I’m quite attached to what I’ve heard. At the close of the stylistic odyssey that is Broken Bells, what a fitting final thought.
All in all, Broken Bells’ self-titled debut is a sharp, vivid album that presents a series of interesting lyrics and sounds mostly by way of tight but thoughtful little pop songs, the pieces which work together to form a greater whole.
And that’s more than enough to hook me.