Despite the gap separating the releases, neither party has been sitting idle in the interim. Alongside a newly-recruited band, Mercer returned with a fourth album fronting The Shins in 2012, Port of Morrow. Burton has busied himself with production duties for artists including The Black Keys and Norah Jones. Broken Bells felt like something of a pleasant anomaly, but by accident or design, the start of 2014 appears to be an auspicious juncture for the duo to return. Daft Punk, Arcade Fire and a rejuvenated Franz Ferdinand have all blurred the lines between alternative rock and dance music to extensive acclaim in recent months.
“The open doors left me wanting more” sings Mercer on The Cure-like curtain-raiser “Perfect World”. Indeed, the falsetto vocals, lyrical allusions to The Velvet Underground and electro Theremin-style effects of lead single “Holding On for Life” hint at horizons expanded far beyond the dreamy downtempo pop that characterized the pair’s 2010 eponymous debut. Regardless of the suggestions of fatigue and burn-out contained within its name, the title track is a glistening synth-pop delight, and it’s just about the finest moment here.
As befits the ostensibly unlikely pairing of its two creators, this LP is, to some extent a stylistic pick ‘n’ mix. Pre-release interviews with Mercer and Burton emphasized the late 80s/early 90s influences from a variety of genres they intended to bring to the table here, and this time around their final product does seem like the result of a more sophisticated musical palette. In a similar manner to its predecessor, After the Disco’s predominant focus is on woozy atmospherics, but across the ten tracks we also find gentle acoustic reverie worthy of Mercer’s day charges (“Leave It Alone”) a country ballad (“Lazy Wonderland”) and fidgety Hi-NRG (“The Changing Lights”). “Control” rises to a dramatic brass-fuelled crescendo, “Medicine” utilizes early 90s baggy beats, but it’s the symphonic sweep of “No Matter What You’re Told” and closer “The Remains of Rock & Roll” that best rekindle the mood of the first record. A welcome comeback.