Broken Bells Trip the Light Fantastic: Concert Review

Chris Godley
James Mercer and Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton continue to make beautiful music together in a set that is breathtakingly perfect.

James Mercer and Brian 'Danger Mouse' Burton continue to make beautiful music together in a set that is breathtakingly perfect.

Against a glowing circular backdrop that doubled as a telescope to the galaxies, a mirror of the blood-red moon hanging in the spring sky outside and a portal into their collective imaginations, Broken Bells now have two albums’ worth of their pristine compositions to perform, rounded out by drummer/keyboard/bassist Jon Sortland and guitarist Dan Elkan.

“I been pushing so hard that my hands are shaking,” intones James Mercer in the first song, “Perfect World,” the leadoff track from their most recent release, After the Disco. “But I’ve been turned around/I was upside down.” It’s an admission that just below the mathematical precision are longing melodies and anxiety, maybe for the asteroids that the pair insist are threatening to wipe us out Armageddon-style.

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There’s a sparkling synth pop gurgle provided by the eclectic Burton on keys, who will also shift to bass and drums during the course of the 75-minute, 18-song set, evenly divided between the first two records.  Mercer’s plaintive falsetto above perfectly complements Mouse’s bass below –Burton manages to coax a lush hummable hook from every instrument he plays – proving the perfect way to infuse “The Ghost Inside” with an eerie supernatural quality. The title track to After the Disco is a somber morning-after post-mortem: when the music’s over, turn out the lights, “Cause I’m waiting here much too long/And don’t assume/that I need your love.”

Burton shifts to bass and Mercer takes over the keyboards for “Mongrel Heart,” like planets orbiting around one another, while “The Mall & Misery” offers a knowing nod to anti-consumerism and the dangerous seduction of credit card debt. “I know what I know/Would not fill a thimble,” admits Mercer.

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There’s a lyrical “Stairway to Heaven” feel to “The Angel and the Fool,” Burton’s bass providing the melody, as the two are silhouetted against a full-moon backdrop. “Holding on for Life” offers a Bee Gees homage with Mercer’s high-pitched vocals and acoustic guitar underlined by a swirling organ riff.  Danger Mouse takes to the drums for “Vaporize," complete with Elkan’s slinky guitar solo, while “Control” has an R&B feel that wouldn’t be out of place on an Eagles album.  The EP selection, “Meyrin Fields,” offers an ominous note of panic and neuroses, buttressed by clattering tribal percussion and Danger Mouse’s rumbling organ underneath. “Sailing to Nowhere” employs Burton’s tinker toy piano line and a Beatlesque feel, a perfect accompaniment to the lit Chinese lanterns which hang from the ceiling and form the stage backdrop.

The three ladies from opening act Au Revoir Simone take the stage to provide background harmonies on “Medicine,” another insinuating ode to paranoia in which Mercer warns, like a doom-saying prophet: “It’s a wonder anyone can breathe here/With a smoke too thick to cough/So we’re falling as we run for cover from the bombs we’re setting off,” which seems to equate apocalypse now with emotional devastation.

Mercer’s keening vocals and a yearning lyricism marks “The Changing Lights,” with the singer still waiting and hoping. “You gotta measure the cost/What do you gain when you lost/Lay off and wonder why/You wanna win but you won’t fight/So the candle just keeps burning on you.” The smoothly soulful “Leave It Alone” brings back the theme of a spiritual presence with its ghost-like chanting. “There’s no dimension to the cloud/The moon and world around/That’s the heart of all my pain/Cause I don’t want to go,” sings Mercer, conflating the cosmic with the personal in a way that brings home Broken Bells’ perfect universe – and the chaos just beyond its reach that threatens to bring all that precision down with it.

“The High Road” is the emotional high point, the crowd now engaged, Danger Mouse providing the trap beat on drums, once more a glimpse at a parallel universe just beyond the one in which we exist. “And I don’t know if the dead can talk to anyone,” croons Mercer, before digging into the chorus, “The  high road is hard to find/A detour to your new life/Tell all of your friends goodbye… It’s too late to change your mind/You let loss be your guide.”

The three-song encore opens with “Citizen,” Mercer conveying a sense of rarified existential ennui with his aching falsetto: “And the walls will fall/Affirming nothing/So what’s it all about?” “Trap Doors” is next, another admonition to “pick up and start again, start again,” describing a “life under water… You gotta let these fools...trample themselves, just dying to enter.”

“October” offers a final survival guide that's all about Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours of preparation: “Remember what they say/There’s no shortcut to a dream/It’s all blood and sweat/And life is what you manage in between.”  The philosophy is couched in a sound that seduces, wraps itself around us and warms in its sheer tunefulness. It’s a bit like being in the womb and refusing to come out, Broken Bells’ immaculate universe holds out the forces of confusion, while trying to shield us from the oblivion of our own unrequited longing. Just call it, to quote the final song from their After the Disco album, one they didn’t play this night, “the remains of rock and roll.”

Set list:

Perfect World
The Ghost Inside
Mongrel Heart
The Mall & Misery
The Angel and the Fool
Holding on for Life
Meyrin Fields
Sailing to Nowhere
The Changing Lights
Leave It Alone
The High Road
Trap Doors