Even before this month’s release of the self-titled album by collaborative project Broken Bells, the world knew that James Mercer and Brian Burton are anything but normal.
Mercer, the sweet tenor at the helm of The Shins, is prone to spewing image-rich non-sequiturs all over any song he writes. The Shins’s 2007 single “Phantom Limb” tells a story of two lesbians in high school, but from hearing the lyrics nobody could have guessed.
Burton, better known as Danger Mouse, has a penchant for mixing up funky beats and strange sounds. Masterminding Gnarls Barkley’s ubiquitous 2006 single “Crazy,” he somehow managed to make uber-falsetto crooning into a cool and catchy hit for every social circle.
So it’s no surprise that, though it certainly has mass appeal, Broken Bells should sound a bit “out there.” Opening track “The High Road” floats Mercer’s typically cryptic lyrics over swirling, mutating electronic beeps. The finished product sounds like the drugged-out ramblings of a highway wanderer and fades out with the oddly comforting refrain that “It’s too late to change your mind / You let laws be your guide.”
“Mongrel Heart” brings the weird, unearthly fun of Broken Bells to its climax. After opening with a pulsing multi-textured groove, the track picks up when Mercer comes in, his lines separated by whooshing wind sounds and an eerie chorus of “oohs” and “ahs.” The momentum comes to a head at the two-minute mark, when an expansive instrumental interlude crashes in, headed by a trumpet melody straight from southern Spain.
Several of the songs on Broken Bells reveal one of the newly minted group’s strongest suits: its preference for unusual instruments. One section of “Mongrel Heart” uses patterns of white noise as a rhythmic base. Sporadic laser bursts add an extraterrestrial feel to the otherwise beach-pop psychedelia of “Your Head Is On Fire.” Meandering, trippy “Sailing To Nowhere” might be one of the first pieces of popular music to use a Native American rainstick as an instrument — it could even be real rain, actually.
Broken Bells does have its share of Shins-style low-fi guitar and simple synthesized grooves. Behind Mercer’s heavy-echo vocals, “Citizen” is mainly backed by a straightforward two-measure piano melody.
But it’s difficult to trace the origins of many of the sounds on Broken Bells. The “how’d they do that?” aesthetic is something all electronic music should strive toward — anything is possible in a genre unbounded by the limitations of physical instruments. Broken Bells know how to take advantage of their medium, and the result is refreshing.
Though much of Broken Bells is stoner dreaming, ultimately it works. Mercer’s warm voice and simply patterned melodies keep the tracks from feeling aloof or lonely. There’s plenty of experimentation, but each track is clearly structured and nothing seems extraneous. Every stray blip or bloop on Broken Bells adds to its ambling, drug-addled ambiance. With the Broken Bells moniker, Mercer and Danger Mouse have found that rare mix of “directed” and “drifting” that makes electronic music really flow.
With The Shins on hiatus and Danger Mouse as independent as ever, it looks like Broken Bells could be around for a while, lyrical and compositional abnormalities and all. But, really, who needs normality when you’ve got these two around?