Have you ever set up two awesome friends who you thought would make an unstoppable power couple only to find that they make the most boring, self-involved duo imaginable? “Broken Bells,” the new collaboration between producer extraordinaire Danger Mouse and guitar pop guru James Mercer, is kind of like that.
The two men are masters of their domains: Danger Mouse is a virtuoso of enlivening tracks with quirky beats and Mercer’s plaintive wailing as lead singer of the Shins is enough to soothe even the most tormented heart. Together, you would hope they could create a harmonious blend of balanced countercurrents, but instead, the two become lethargic and complacent, reinforcing each other’s bad habits and canceling out each other’s strengths.
“Bells” is an exercise in “almost.” There are some neat sketches and maybe even some worthwhile brainstorming sessions, but there’s not enough cohesion or energy to make it worthwhile. If there’s one track that works, it’s “The Ghost Inside.” Danger Mouse’s beats are fresh but familiar, and Mercer’s falsetto tones give the song a fun, retro feel. Similarly, in “Sailing to Nowhere,” Danger Mouse’s alien constructions lend Mercer’s signature wail new depths and textures to create an air of eerie “Sergeant Pepper’s” psychedelia.
For the most part, however, the songs fall flat. In tracks like “Mongrel Heart,” there are intimations of 80s synth pop that could have become fascinating fusions of acoustic and electronic but instead just feel half-formed and tired. The second track on the album, “Vaporize,” likewise turns into a snoozefest. There is a vision here somewhere, but the ideas are never fleshed out enough to rise above the level of the occasional catchy tune. The two are working together, but there’s the sense that, more often than not, they’re missing each other’s drifts.
The middling character of the album is especially disappointing because both artists seem to be on autopilot. Danger Mouse does Danger Mouse and James Mercer does James Mercer, but neither demonstrates any real ambition to lose himself and become part of a single “Broken Bells” entity. It happens in incidents and accidents, but not enough to make this collaboration truly collaborative. “Bells” is most definitely broken, but not in any kind of funky way.