If I had bothered to count down, sometime near the end of last year, the best albums or songs or people or whatever of the first decade of the 21st century (I’m thinking of referring to this as the Last Century of My Life, not out of any sense of morbidity but out of deference to the statistical likelihood that I won’t see the year 2100), I most certainly would have named DJ Danger Mouse as one of the finest artists of the last ten years (I have briefly and quietly asserted that “All My Friends” by LCD Soundsystem is probably the best song of the last decade). After rising to prominence by doing two things I like – producing a compelling hip-hop record and pissing off Jay-Z – on The Grey Album and producing excellent collaborations with Gemini and MF Doom (another artist who would top my I Love the Aughties list), Danger Mouse really took off, working with Gorillaz, the Black Keys, and Mr. Cee-Lo Green in the simultaneously under-and-over-rated Gnarls Barkley (their brand of crazy-ass pop is a lot of fun. But “Crazy” was overplayed. That said, “Crazy” is still kinda the jam and their cover of the Violent Femmes’ “Gone Daddy Gone” is pretty badass too). So what dazzling new projects does Danger (or Mr. Mouse, if you’re into the whole formality thing) have in store for the second decade of the Last Century of My Life? For starters, a collaboration with James Mercer, a.k.a., the dude from the Shins (a.k.a. the band that did that song that your girlfriend loves on the Garden State soundtrack*. That is, the one that’s not by Frou Frou).
I don’t mean to imply that Broken Bells will succeed or fail entirely on Danger Mouse’s considerable talents. James Mercer is a pretty good songwriter himself (people who listen to the Shins only for “New Slang” are robbing themselves of great songs like “Young Pilgrims,” “Mine is Not a High Horse,” and “Gone for Good,” among many others) and should be considered on equal footing with his fellow Broken Bell. His voice is a little high for some people’s liking, but it’s never really bothered me. My biggest concern is that the second half of the Shins’ last album puts me to sleep almost every time. But I had high hopes for Broken Bells based on what Danger Mouse did for the Black Keys on their Attack & Release album. If a dude can breathe some fresh air into a group, that dude is Danger Mouse and essentially, my feeling that maybe Mercer was stuck in a rut is balanced by the knowledge that Danger Mouse is great at getting people out of ruts.
Though it offers compelling evidence that James Mercer is no longer (if he ever was) stuck in a creative morass, Broken Bells is probably not best described as, “gob-smackingly awesome.” Not to say it’s not good – it is. But it’s a subtly beautiful album and as such, isn’t served by hyperbolic language (as much as I love it. To quote a Mental Floss T-shirt of mine, “Hyperbole is the Best Thing Ever”). Broken Bells didn’t really grab me on the first listen. It took about three trips through it before the album’s charms began to work their magic on me. But – and this is key – I like the album more every time I listen to it (between the Hold Steady’s Heaven is Whenever and the National’s High Violet, albums are really having to fight for my time. Perhaps knowing that they can wrest my ears – occasionally – away from those other two bands is all the praise Broken Bells need. Just in case, though, I’ll praise them more). Though the album is only ten tracks, there’s not a miss among them and a couple (“Your Head’s On Fire” and “Citizen” come to mind) are downright gorgeous. Mercer gets the most out of his voice, both the familiar high end (“The Ghost Inside,” which I think is about a stripper in a dead-end town) and his very nice lower range as well. There are subtle background harmonies and an almost dreamlike instrumentation that gives Broken Bells a nice, balanced feel from start to finish. For some reason, I just thought of a good beer. That’s hardly a bad thing.
In general, I have high expectations for Danger Mouse’s work, but it was hard to calibrate those expectations for Broken Bells because James Mercer wasn’t on my fantasy list of Danger Mouse collaborators (sorry, Mr. Mercer. It’s not personal – I just didn’t see it coming). That said, Broken Bells feels like the most fully integrated band of any of the non-hip-hop things I’ve head Danger Mouse do. With the Black Keys, it felt like Danger Mouse producing a rock band (which is what it was and it was awesome) but if the two guys in Broken Bells were just a couple of anonymous schlubs, their debut would still be quite praiseworthy. The Black Keys needed Danger Mouse’s magic touch and Broken Bells have it without sounding like they need it. Does that make sense? It’s not important. Look: James Mercer and Danger Mouse sound like they’ve started a band that could have some longevity to it, which gives Broken Bells the advantage of not sounding like a one-off or a side project. If there’s three more Broken Bells records and no more Shins records, I could be quite content with that.
In the end, Broken Bells doesn’t feel all that earth-shattering. It hasn’t infiltrated any of my local radio stations (I think NPR has thrown a couple of its songs on every once in a while), I haven’t heard these songs in ads for teen dramas, and it definitely isn’t going to enjoy the massive success of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” – and I say none of those things with the intention of disparaging Broken Bells. This album almost feels like an overlooked treasure, a secret bit of loveliness for those of us who were lucky enough to catch it. Long after Justin Beiber** has faded into obscurity (and/or rehab), we’ll still have Danger Mouse and James Mercer and the weird, lovely fruits of their labor.
*a.k.a. “New Slang,” or “The Song Your Aspiring Troubadour Friends Are Fucking Up At Open Mic Nights All Over the Country.” Seriously, though, I like this song and I like the Shins, so no hate mail about that. Any aspiring troubadours who wish to send hate mail, however, are more than welcome. Anything that’ll take away from the time you spend writing songs that compare life to a river or your girlfriend’s eyes to deep pools or your broken heart to shattered glass or whatever the fuck it is you like to sing about.
**Okay, I know nothing about this kid other than his name. And the fact that a lot of people, publications, and various media outlets for whom I have zero respect are all spooging in their breakfast about him. I get the sense that he’s another adolescent product marketed as a prodigy – I’m willing to entertain contrary evidence, but I defy you to find any.