After The Disco—the second album from The Shins’ James Mercer and Danger Mouse as their collaboration project, Broken Bells—is unlucky to arrive a year after the release of Random Access Memories. Daft Punk made its record soar by using live instruments (for the most part) and collaborating with disco legend Nile Rodgers, producing a time-traveling trip of a record. After The Disco can’t fully duplicate that trick. For all of Danger Mouse’s gifts, the record sounds like modern R&B production with approximated elements of disco, but gets stuck at a frustrating midpoint between the two.
The duo’s 2010 self-titled debut began with the low-key digital blips and echoing vocals of “The High Road,” a subdued midtempo track indicative of the rest of that first record. In contrast, After The Disco kicks off with 30 seconds of spacey low end before the drums kick in, propelling “Perfect World” through six and a half minutes of multi-tracked vocals. On the upbeat tracks, when Danger Mouse pushes the production into danceable grooves, After The Disco is bright and fun. Mercer’s falsetto soars over the grooving title track, and infectiously catchy bass lines anchor “Holding On For Life” and “No Matter What You’re Told.”
It’s the After part of the record that’s a bit of problem, as the tracks that sound like coming down from the adrenaline rush of a party pass by without a second thought. A song title like “Lazy Wonderland” embodies those moments in microcosm: a gently strummed acoustic guitar, electronic blips, and Mercer dragging out notes until they blend in with the rising strings. It’s the sonic representation of a nap, titled too conveniently to skewer the tossed-off dreamscapes that fill out the forgettable tracks. That’s especially a shame since the quieter moments on Broken Bells often yielded highlights like “Citizen,” and the jangly, psychedelic sounds of The Shins work even in quieter moments when Mercer’s quirks as a songwriter came to the forefront. After The Disco pushes Mercer to higher peaks of energy, but his voice is stranded in elegantly arranged emptiness on quieter songs like “The Angel And The Fool.”
Danger Mouse is a producer well suited to sketching out territories for vocalists to inhabit, whether it’s Damon Albarn, CeeLo, or Mercer. With Broken Bells, his little worlds push Mercer into more expansive atmospheres than the most adventurous Shins material. But since the driving tracks are bigger earworms than the carefully crafted, fragile ones, perhaps the duo would’ve done better to focus on the party, instead of what comes after.