By Micah McLain
When Brian Burton (AKA Danger Mouse) and The Shins’ lead singer James Mercer announced their collaboration in 2009, fans of both artists were no doubt excited about the wide range of sonic possibilities. While both artists come from very different backgrounds, their trajectories have been moving closer over the last few years, culminating with the duo’s work on the David Lynch/Sparklehorse project Dark Night of the Soul. While Broken Bells might not be as adventurous or risky as many had hoped, it is an album full of unique sounds and auditory textures. Mercer’s lyrics skew heavily towards personal loss, whether this be the loss of his band (Mercer is now the only original member of The Shins remaining) or a personal relationship. Surprisingly, only the most attentive listener will recognize the sadness in the lyrics the first time through as a result of Burton’s complex production and layering of sounds.
Lead single “The High Road” begins with fuzzy synth and a basic backbeat before organ keys carry in Mercer’s vocals amid a layered chorus. The well-paced delivery and accompanying backing vocals nearly hide dark lyrics such as “A soldier is bailing out/And curled his lips on the barrel/And I don’t know if the dead can talk/To anyone” before the track dies out with the repeated “It’s too late to change your mind/You let loss be your guide.” Mercer pushes his falsetto to an impressively high pitch on album standout “The Ghost Inside,” while Burton loads the production with everything from a bass-heavy hip hop beat and hand claps to piano and violin. Album closer “The Mall & Misery” brings all of the various elements together one more time. The track features a slowly building orchestral and acoustic guitar opening that leads into synthesizers and quick, jagged guitar chords that surround Mercer’s floating vocals before everything fades out amid synthetic nature sounds.
While Burton is known for his ability to incorporate a wide range of found sounds and samples into his recordings, he chose to stick with live instrumentation for the Broken Bells sessions, focusing on keyboard-based effects and orchestral touches. Burton even treats Mercer’s voice as an additional sound to be manipulated through a variety of effects and distortion. These decisions will only serve to make the duo’s live shows even more authentic and memorable. Both Burton and Mercer have said that they do not intend for this to be Broken Bell’s only album so there should be plenty more for fans to get excited for in the future. We can only hope that they continue to experiment with various sounds and push the boundaries of what can come from such a unique collaboration.