If a bell is broken, is it still a bell? I am plagued by thoughts such as these. It reminds me of the Wire album title, A Bell is a Cup…Until It Is Struck. These kinds of statements and questions get at the nature of things. I don’t mean to get all ‘Sartre’ philosophical on everyone, but it’s the first thing I thought of upon seeing the name of the project spawned by Shins’ frontman James Mercer and some guy named Brian Burton (most of you will know him as Danger Mouse). Danger Mouse, it seems, has touched every aspect of modern music. He’s like the Tommy Lee Jones of the pop world. He’s everywhere. However, Zelig-like, he fits in perfectly wherever he goes, somehow making his collaborators that much better in the process. Broken Bells is no exception, featuring the best songwriting and vocals from James Mercer I’ve heard since Chutes Too Narrow.
First single, “The High Road,” kicks the album off, an off-kilter robotic keyboard making way for a chilled out drum track. That atmosphere, created in a manner of a mere few seconds, gears up for a James Mercer you might not be prepared for, one whose voice is lowered, free of tension and, even when it gets high again, the most infectious it’s ever been. I found myself head nodding, hand clapping and swaying without being fully conscious of it. When once I thought that either “New Slang,” “So Says I” or “Missed the Boat” were Mercer’s high points vocally, I now might have to rethink that position.
One shouldn’t get the wrong idea when envisioning a Danger Mouse / Shins mashup. That is not remotely what this is. This is not “Sampling the Night Away.” Misters Mouse and Mercer both play live instruments for Broken Bells, creating as organic a hybrid genre album as can be produced. The organs and horns on “Vaporize,” the strings on “Your Head Is On Fire,” and Beatles meet Blur residual Gorillaz-ness of “Sailing to Nowhere” are all antithetical to any kind of preconceived notions of this union, and all play to each member’s strengths to perfection. Each track is extraordinarily single-worthy, making it incredibly difficult for me to pick a favorite. From the laid-back, mock stuttering of the lyrics “fight fire” in the soothing “Trap Doors” to the earworm piano hook of “October,” every song is a standout.
But, I suppose the songs that are the most daring, the ones that might have some people on the fence, are my ultimate favorites. “The Ghost Inside,” probably the closest thing to Gnarls Barkley on the record, has James Mercer doing his best Prince impression, and it’s surprisingly infectious. While I was at first taken aback, I soon found myself humming along wherever I went, adding handclaps as I stepped to the beat. “Mongrel Heart” is the other one more outside Mercer’s wheelhouse, and this was just as surprising as “Ghost,” albeit in a different way. “Mongrel Heart” is rooted in ’80s synth-pop sheen, but with a beating heart that only these two could attach to such a plastic-coated beast. The background vocals make all the difference on the track, which is easily one of my favorites. There’s also a leaked bonus track out there, whose title I’m as yet unaware of, that is equally as engaging in its variance.
I’m sure I’ve told this story before, but my roommate in college used to torment me and my friends with philosophy. At parties, he’d tell us the story of the Achilles, an Atlantic-crossing ship that, at each port, would undergo several repairs. After a number of years, every single part on the ship had been replaced, meaning that not one single original part of the Achilles remained. “So,” he’d ask us, “which ship is the real Achilles?” I’m not sure there’s an answer to that question. It all depends upon one’s sensibilities. Purists will tend to think the first incarnation is the real one, while progressives will lean toward the newest, working version. Are you seeing where I’m going with this? Broken Bells isn’t the Shins. It isn’t even Danger Mouse. It’s Broken Bells. And, if a bell is broken, is it really a bell? In this case, who cares, as long as the music comes out sounding like this. Let’s not try to fix it, shall we?
Video: “The High Road”