Broken Bells | Album Review

The name of good ’80s music has too often been taken in vain of late with many wannabes riding the retro bandwagon.  They abuse the synth by over-use, totally missing the point of what made that particular decade stand out – its diversity and, more importantly, its innovation. Yet once in a while you hear something that evinces the spirit of the last musical golden age so accurately you could mistake it for a recently discovered long-lost ’80s gem.

Broken Bells’ delicious self-titled electro-indie debut – the love child of producer Danger Mouse and Shins frontman James Mercer – is such a record.  Try to pin down its influences to a single source and you come unstuck; there are just so many overlaps.  

This is, however, in no way a criticism. At under 40 minutes long, ‘Broken Bells’ is a succinct and wholly satisfying sample of superior songwriting and excellent production completely sympathetic to the compositions it brings to life.

You are reminded that it is Danger Mouse’s ability to push himself creatively without letting vainglory get in the way of doing a song justice, that helped make Gnarls Barkley’s St Elsewhere the modern masterpiece that it is.  Mercer combines songwriting prowess with vocals that are at once confident and vulnerable.  The result is surprisingly moving.

Broken Bells opens triumphantly with the anthem-like single ‘High Road’ – a wonderful fusion of melodic rock sensibility and Hip Hop percussion.  It succeeds in a similar way to Coldplay’s ‘Lost’ in that it has the potential to be a fist-in-the-air stadium favourite that brings together fans of seemingly disparate genres.

Follow up single ‘The Ghost Inside’ – its bassline bearing a strong resemblance to that of Janet Jackson’s underrated party jam ‘Go Deep’ – is another slice of perfectly-executed, credible, radio-friendly pop/rock.

‘Sailing to Nowhere’ sounds like a demented waltz-cum-lullaby but in the best possible way; as if Lewis Carroll himself would choose it as the soundtrack to some of Alice’s misadventures.  Its gorgeous, stringed denouement is the calm after the storm.

The sense of isolation depicted in the epic ‘Citizen’ is captured expertly in the beleaguered strumming of beautifully melancholic chords on the acoustic guitar. It would be good to hear this one live with a cameo appearance from Peter Gabriel; his voice comes to mind for some reason.

The final two tracks ‘The Mall & Misery’ and ‘Mongrel Heart’ (which reflects some of the rhythmic urgency of Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’) are the most reminiscent of a much-missed bygone era.  It’s as if Mercer’s plaintive yet defiant vocals have been building up to this point lest the listener be in any doubt they’ve just experienced something quite special.

The elegiac organ and bass duet that draws ‘The Mall & Misery’ to a close tugs at your heart just that little bit more.  An entirely fitting, if doleful, way to end an album that very aptly honours its musical forbears.

–Tola Ositelu

Broken Bells debut self-titled album is out now via Columbia Records.