Hot off the heels of his collaboration with indie rockers Portugal. The Man, Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse) teams up with The Shin’s James Mercer to further explore the Broken Bells project they began in 2010. The result, After the Disco, is another collection of sparkling pop songs produced with Burton’s trademark punchiness, but this time with a hint of vintage synths and sounds that are straight out of the eighties.
That’s not to say that this is a retro chic album. James Mercer writes indie rock/pop songs and his sensibilities as a songwriter are firmly in play. Many of the tracks on After the Disco take on the familiar Danger Mouse shape, harkening back to Demon Days, his album with the Gorillaz, but there are unmistakable references to ’80s pop strewn all over the album. For example, listen to the synthesizer line following the chorus on the lead single “Holding on for Life.” Listen to that out of context and you might think you’ve stumbled upon a long-lost Tears for Fears track.
Really though, Burton has built a career of mashing disparate decades of styles into something new and fresh. We’re talking about the guy who made his name with a Jay-Z / Beatles mash-up record, and he continues to do the same with his original productions. On After the Disco you hear pop songs, classic rock chord progressions, hip-hop percussion, pockets of electronica, grandiose backing vocals, string swells, and a couple of those aforementioned ’80s nostalgia punches.
And this is what makes Broken Bells such a success: Mercer is simply a fantastic songwriter, but within the confines of the Shins, there is a certain audience that he just can’t reach. Enter Burton, who can seemingly produce any track in a way “the kids” will appreciate. Which, at some point, is part branding. There are tracks on After the Disco like “Lazy Wonderland” that might as well be on a Shins album because there isn’t as much influence from Burton. However, that doesn’t stop the song from being an amazing exercise in Mercer’s songwriting prowess, it just lacks the punch that Danger Mouse brings to the collaboration.
When the collaboration does come through, Broken Bells achieves what every project like this strives for; something that amounts to more than the sum of its parts. If this same collection of songs was presented as a Shin’s offering, it might fall a little flat, but in the hands of Danger Mouse it becomes vibrant and relevant. That is the job of any great producer, and Burton has proven time and time again he is indeed that. Someone with a great musical ear, who can unite rock and rap, and has a trademark sound that is bright and punchy. Could he be the Millennial generation’s Rick Rubin? Time will tell, but his track record is starting to add up and looks to be headed that way.