Matthew Dear Talks Broken Bells’ After the Disco

It's hard to think of Danger Mouse without a musical collaborator. It's as if the man cannot operate without a co-conspirator. Having worked with...

It’s hard to think of Danger Mouse without a musical collaborator. It’s as if the man cannot operate without a co-conspirator. Having worked with the Flaming Lips, Norah Jones, Jack White, Cee Lo Green, U2, the Black Keys, and Julian Casablancas, to name only a few, he is, without a doubt, one of contemporary music’s most fraternized individuals, capable of producing a very long “six degrees of separation” laundry list of connectivity with various artists of the past decade, and at this rate, for decades beyond.

James Mercer, leader and lone torch-runner of the Shins, is no stranger to collaboration either. Although those collaborations revolve around a shifting Shins line-up and the various producers who have left their mark on Mercer’s albums, they’re artistic collaborations nonetheless. The Shins have been inescapably present since the early 2000’s and have filled a power-pop-rock void left by past idols like Modest Mouse and Built to Spill — hook, line and sinker.

After the Disco is the second album from the pairing of these two musicians as Broken Bells — a powerful duo, considering the Billboard-charting prowess each have on their own.

Having sat at the collaborative desk myself, I’m familiar with the concept of taking from two to create one. (I’ve recently created music in some form or another with Jad Abumrad of the public radio show Radiolab, Twin Shadow, Jonny Pierce of the Drums, Nicolas Jaar, Tiga, and Tegan & Sara.) Remixes and direct collaborations have something very important in common: They either work, or they don’t. I’ll be the first to admit, some of my remixes have fallen flatter than I’d anticipated simply because I couldn’t muster the passion for the craft at that moment. That isn’t necessarily tied directly to my love or lack thereof for the other half involved, but sometimes that love gives you the power to push it one step further. When remixing Ultraísta’s “Smalltalk,” I kept telling myself, “This is for Nigel Godrich. Ni-gel God-rich.” and that gave me the midnight oil needed to keep cracking away and make it perfect, knowing that, above all else, he would be listening to my results.

To the collaborative matter at hand, After the Disco is roughly 45 minutes and 11 songs. Sonically, the album is as concise at its running time. Everything sounds perfectly tucked and snipped into place, awash in Danger Mouse’s tightly crafted arrangements of tape-saturated drums and small string sections. This music is very safe, and not necessarily something I would find myself listening to had I not been asked to write about it. Something about it falls flat on my ears, as if an openness heard in each artist’s back catalogue has been lost. I’ve been told the album was recorded primarily at Danger Mouse’s home studio, so perhaps I’m hearing a difference in aesthetic approach to the recording process. It’s almost as if the intent was to make things sound grainy and underproduced, as opposed to the immaculately lush and colorful output of the Shins’ latest and greatest album, Port of Morrow. On that album, the listener is blanketed by layers of guitar, vocal overdubs, and sonic experimentation that complements Mercer’s overtly direct melodies. By comparison, After the Disco is murky, and the songs end up sounding a bit too condensed, as if draped beneath a damp towel. Admittedly, I’m focusing on an aural perspective rather than the songs themselves, but when the overall vibe of an album sounds a certain way, I have a harder time personally connecting with the music. It feels as if Danger Mouse had his arsenal of sonic weaponry locked and loaded for this album, and Mercer simply came by to overlay vocals into the process.

Some songs stand out as great, however, and do so for their swift departure from the album’s aforementioned predictably mechanical nature. “Control” and “Leave It Alone” are fully flushed from each artist’s respective pasts, and put a firm foot forward toward collaboration for the sake of pleasure. “Control” immediately grabs the listener with a telltale electric guitar part that jumps out of the backing rhythm section; the riff feels so familiar, like an old friend, that it persuades us to enjoy whatever comes next. And what comes next is one of the album’s best melodies, in a song that feels like a classic from the first listen. Similarly, “Leave It Alone” begins with an acoustic pattern that takes me somewhere as soon as I play it.

I am not a music critic and actually, I’m probably one of the least critical people when it comes to music — the opinions above are simply my take on a collaborative expression of creativity, and I do think the world is a better place now that Mercer and Danger Mouse have made this music together. Sometimes music just isn’t right for me at a particular moment, but I hope this album will make someone very happy. Above all else, After the Disco is a testament to the importance of collaborating. The more we can dwell on projects together, the more we can connect in the physical world and create something that others can partake in. Whether the results are welcomed or not, the act of producing art is the ultimate reward, and the world has another piece of the puzzle to ingest, ponder, and discuss. The conversation continues.

Matthew Dear is a DJ, a dance-music producer, an experimental pop artist, and a bandleader. His latest album Beams is a suite of weird, wild, and queasily optimistic rhythm-driven pop songs. He currently lives in upstate New York near the Delaware River. You can follow him on Twitter here.