Collaboration meets experimentation in Broken Bells

The last album the Shins released was 2007’s Wincing the Night Away. Since then, the band has gone through lineup changes and has moved labels, jumping to lead singer James Mercer’s private label, Aural Apothecary. While it was rumored that a new album might be released in 2009, nothing has surfaced yet. With everything on pause, a side project was bound to happen.

The first time Mercer and Brian Burton, better known as Danger Mouse, worked together was on the song “Insane Lullaby,” a track based on alternative rock band Sparklehorse’s project Dark Side of the Soul. It really comes as no surprise when the duo announced in September 2009 that they would be collaborating to form a new band called Broken Bells.

Some have compared Broken Bells to The Postal Service, citing similarities between Ben Gibbard and Mercer, as both used their side projects to experiment with electronic sound.

On first listen, their self-titled debut sounds fresh and unique, with soulful harmonies and captivating beats. The sound is reminiscent of the Beatles, but with the band’s own quirks. “The High Road,” their first single and the first track on the album, features skipping beats and synthetic punches, which are echoed throughout many of the other nine songs on the album.

“Vaporize,” the next track, begins with a few chords on acoustic guitar, which is later joined by Mercer’s voice, an organ, percussion, and bass. As with the next track on the album, “Your Head Is On Fire,” and a later track, “Citizen,” it pulls from Mercer’s other band and could probably pass for a song by the Shins.

From there, the middle tracks don’t quite parallel the first two in excitement or fascination. It isn’t until “October,” a song with a catchy, upbeat tempo propelled by an electric keyboard, that the album wakes up again. The album concludes with “The Mall and the Misery,” which starts with a fast drum beat, followed by techno-electronic sounds.

Perhaps the best way to describe the album is that, with the exception of a few songs, everything merges into one. It’s hard to notice, especially while multitasking, when the songs change. Although Broken Bells is pleasant to listen to, and definitely worth a listen, it’s nothing to write home about.

A few boundaries were pushed, as Mercer uses his voice in a higher register, but there seems to be no new growth for the duo. While the album as a whole is captivating, nothing in the album stands out.

Perhaps the duo didn’t have enough time to experiment more, or maybe the project was just a distraction for Mercer as he moves past his losses and tries to find his way. It would seem that way when one peruses the lyrics, especially as he describes in “The High Road”: “Cause they know, and so do I/The high road is hard to find/A detour to your new life/Tell all of your friends goodbye.”