At times, Broken Bells' self-titled debut was so hazy that it felt like it was about to dissipate in a cloud of wry West Coast melancholy, but on After the Disco, James Mercer and Brian Burton give that atmosphere a little more form. Building on previous highlights like "The Ghost Inside" and "The High Road," the pair dive deeper into their synth pop, new wave, and disco fascinations to soundtrack songs that, as the album title suggests, are filled with comedowns and disappointments. Former single and standout track "Holding on for Life" uses its slow-motion disco beat and eerie keyboards to underscore the emptiness lurking in lyrics like "what a lovely day to be lonely," cultivating a mood that falls somewhere between desperate and glamorous. As always in Broken Bells' world, there's a fine line between bittersweet and bummed out; while these aren't the easiest moods to make appealing, Burton and Mercer succeed when they bring some energy to the proceedings. "Medicine" bolsters its contemplative sighs with spiky, percussive pop that recalls Gotye, while "No Matter What You're Told" gives some brassy bite to its blasé cynicism. Here and on songs like "Lazy Wonderland," which sells the merits of watching the wheels go round and round with some alluring major-minor chord changes, After the Disco feels like a much more organic and satisfying blend of Mercer and Burton's respective strengths than Broken Bells did. However, the duo still sometimes border on being too tasteful, and much of the album's pleasure comes from appreciating flourishes like the flute-like keys on "Leave It Alone" and the update of smoky '70s soft rock on "The Angel and the Fool" rather than the songs' actual sentiments; even the title of the closing track, "The Remains of Rock & Roll," suggests that passion doesn't have much of a place here. Given Burton and Mercer's pedigrees, it's hard not to want more from Broken Bells, but After the Disco's strongest moments suggest that their music is coming into focus.
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AllMusic Review by Heather Phares