Broken Bells

Broken Bells

(Columbia; 2010)

By Sam Donsky | 28 April 2010

Infinity will have to eat itself and then regenerate with a third arm and then lift weights with those three arms continuously until the sun collapses before there can exist a quantity commensurate with how much I used to love iTunes Celebrity Playlist. In the interim I will resort to the profane: I used to fucking love iTunes Celebrity Playlist. For a while growing up, real talk, it was no less than the principal way that I discovered new music. You read Pitchfork; I learned from Kanye that “Seven Nation Army” was the “white song black people like.” You surfed Napster; I got hipped by Mischa Barton to The Moon and Antarctica. You shared guilty pleasures with your friends; I found out from Al Gore that I wasn’t the lone dude down with “UMI Says.” (I got you, Al.)

One of the side effects of this habit was that I began to notice particular songs and artists appearing on playlists over and over. Plans-era Death Cab? Staple. Mary J covering “One”? Like clockwork. “Icky Thump”? You bet. “Hey Ya!”? Fuck yeah. “E-Pro”? God yes. Everything, ever, by Regina Spektor? Looking at you, Cusack. And I believe they actually won’t let you within the Hollywood city limits anymore without knowing the lyrics to “Last Goodbye.” The exact overlap of these choices was nothing I could ever elucidate—they were neither necessarily the most popular songs nor the coolest nor the most critically acclaimed—but there was absolutely, in some way that I could at least associatively grasp, a common thread running through. Certain songs simply felt like “Celebrity Playlist songs.” After a while, you could just sort of tell.

And if you had asked me six months ago to name the definitive commonality on the iTunes celeb circuit, I would have said it’s a tie: between Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” and the Shins’ “New Slang.” Those two, with a bullet, I’d have told you, and third is not even close. Thus, when I heard that the majordomos behind each were collaborating on an entire record together, I thought Holy shit—this one’s for you, iTunes Celebrity Playlist. This was going to be the single most ambiguously rep-able album of all-time. And it turns out I was half-right. While Broken Bells is most certainly rep-able, it’s not ambiguous in the least. More precisely, it proves so utterly ambiguous in its appeal that it manages, somehow, to come out on the other side: as a perfectly bland distillation of the formula that I had long since recognized but never quite grasped.

It manages with haste. James Mercer’s voice has never been his strong suit but on his Shins work he has written around it, to the point that its thinness comes off as a nearly aesthetic decision. (One strains to imagine, say, “Kissing the Lipless” without that hollow-bottomed premise of “a bad singer belting it out.”) It is the triumph of essence over absence, so to speak—a sentiment one might bestow upon a lot of indie rock’s millennial jams. Broken Bells’ production, however, comes at a cost of more essence than Mercer’s pipes can afford. “The Ghost Inside,” riding a weird electro-hip hop beat, pretty much swallows him whole. His tiptoe around the bass line on “Mongrel Heart” suggests, among other things, that he would have sucked in the ‘80s. A similar case can be made for the ‘70s by “The Mall & Misery”’s harmonic wash. In fact writing this now it seems obvious: Mercer’s talents, while vast, run on a fairly closed/modern circuit.

Which is almost a compliment. One might even argue that Mercer’s success has heretofore been contingent on those limits: that the ‘00s were a moment to which he attached himself, and not vice-versa. But at some point this too falls apart. Mercer appears either oblivious to his own shortcomings on Broken Bells or at peace with them—whichever, he sings here the same way he always has: moving through the record with a quick, telltale stoicism and a mode that never strains past “Shins-operational.” For a project whose very existence seems to shout “MY MUSE IS ADVENTURE,” it is a curious result.

And yet, if I’m honest, such an alleged defeat-of-purpose would be more than forgivable if Broken Bells could stick its backup-landing as “an overproduced Shins joint.” This too though, tellingly, fails to materialize. The songs—even if one imagines them at their demo-folk core—are simply (to the point of peculiarly) not all that good. Almost everything sags into the same, slow-grooved alterna-template, a least common denominator of half-hooks and atmosphere and faux-space-age slickness.

Even the ideas that start out as promising eagerly reveal their negating qualities. “Vaporize” turns its initial acoustic momentum into a repressed middle-third and a limp, horns-aided outro. “Citizen” takes what is the record’s most pleasantly untelegraphed melody and twists it to a bitter crawl. Only lead single “The High Road” delivers, and it is scarcely coincidence that it does so as two separate thoughts: three minutes of a patient, disassembling beat pressed abruptly against a minute-long rush of campfire chorus. It is a moment that’s hard to resist, but also a pretty plain signal that the two men should return to their corners.

Broken Bells is thus, perhaps in spite of itself, the ultimate iTunes Celebrity Playlist: a fake groove record. It is song-rock with “production” as its dominant term, new dope presented in the clothes of an old reputation. In a way this is the inverse of indie’s Pyrrhic ideal. It is music that will fall within everyone’s taste-spectrum, yet somehow avoid hitting on anyone’s actual taste. It is what you might call “oppressively okay”—the sort of thing you almost wish would just hurry up and be shitty. But it’s not, quite. It can’t be. Which then becomes the real ugly truth of the matter: the gears of each since exposed, I have now—however unfairly—begun to sour on “Crazy” and “New Slang.” With this Broken Bells turns into my own modest nightmare: it is a record that can teach one, literally, how to hear music worse.