March 29, 2011 - Columbia
Listening to Broken Bells—electro-pop collaboration between Shins leading man James Mercer and Beatles-bootlegger-turned-Gnarls-Barkley-superstar Danger Mouse—feels a bit like watching one of those weird high school flings between an A/V club super-dork and a cheerleader at the fore of a New Year’s resolution to start going for guys with a little more substance. For two weeks, everyone observes as she sweetly pretends to love the mix of Nirvana B-sides he’s given her, and he tries with little success to style his hair, but only the lovebirds themselves are capable of viewing the charade as anything other than a complete betrayal of the natural order. Mercer and Mouse create a similar dichotomy. Two individuals not entirely suited to playing to each other’s strengths, they mount a stiff, when-worlds-collide affair that is occasionally inspiring, consistently awkward and sometimes difficult to stop gawking at.
James Mercer’s greatest gift has always been his melodic buoyancy, which was a perfect fit for the Shins’ jubilant pop—even through the melancholic reverb of their debut, 2001’s Oh, Inverted World, Mercer instantly shone through as one of the premier melodic navigators of a generation rife with them. If at times he only narrowly avoided crises of cutesiness, it was because his irrepressible joie de vivre only brightened the Shins’ natural vitality, one not unlike the joyous retro soul with which Danger Mouse infused Gnarls Barkley’s most memorable cuts. But Danger Mouse’s beats for Mercer are less vivacious; in aesthetic, they more closely resemble the claustrophobic murk he cooked up for Beck on 2008’s Modern Guilt. This was a reasonable challenge for Beck, perhaps the most stylistically versatile popular musician to emerge in the last 20 years. Mercer, however, spends most of Meyrin Fields (the latest EP from Broken Bells, and the follow-up to their 2010 self-titled debut) struggling to hit the curve.
To be fair, Mercer brings his A game to the title track and “An Easy Life,” expertly crafted melodic passages partially enriched and partially obscured by Danger Mouse’s woozy backdrops. In a pinch, these might have acceptably augmented the Shins’ last album, 2007’s Wincing The Night Away. But the problem is that the emotional languages don’t jibe. Without the Shins’ propulsive thrust to bolster it, Mercer’s sugary timbre struggles to sustain itself, and rather than spark the tension the collaboration requires, it just irks—like a caffeine-fueled morning person who approaches you on a bad day and smothers you in self-improvement platitudes. The ease of Broken Bells tracks like “October” and “The Mall & Misery” is missed, replaced by a sluggishness that wears you down faster than any EP clocking in at 11:40 ought to.
The main frustration with Meyrin Fields is that neither artist seems hindered individually, only lost to elevate his respective partner in a meaningful way. But let this be the lesson of the supergroup—obvious though you’d think it would be by now, the creative unit must always eclipse the sum of its parts. In its way, that every generation needs constant reminding of this lends an odd credence to groups like Broken Bells, who—like the geek and the cheerleader—teach us the twisted value in everything having its place. In both cases, the lasting impression is bittersweet. In time, one comes to appreciate the principled transcendence it stands for, and the intrinsic novelty contained therein, but in the moment, there’s no escaping what it is: the well-intentioned union of two uniquely gifted individuals who are never quite in sync with each other.