BROKEN BELLS INSIDE OUT: Pt. 3—The Alchemists

Broken Bells 3 crop

We conclude our story of Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton and James Mercer. (In Pt. 1 Mercer outlined his musical arc with The Shins and how his gradual disillusionment with the band primed him for a musical collaboration with Burton. Then in Pt. 2 author Lurie flashed back to 1996 when, as students at the University of Georgia, he and Burton hit it off musically and for a brief period, played together in a band.)

BY ROBERT DEAN LURIE

Having played music with Brian, and having watched along with everyone else as he’s collaborated with a staggering menagerie of artists—CeeLo Green, Norah Jones, Beck, The Black Keys, U2, Jack White, Sparklehorse, The Flaming Lips, Dennis Fucking Hopper—I feel as qualified as anyone to declare that James Mercer is the perfect partner and foil for Danger Mouse. As we have seen, Mercer is a talented and focused artist who can hold his own among the performers listed above. Yet there’s a personality factor that goes above and beyond that, the feeling of a key finding the correct lock. As Gnarls Barkley, Brian and CeeLo were “the odd couple,” and the incongruity of the grandiose and volatile CeeLo Green paired with the even-heeled (yet exacting) Brian Burton was the cauldron out of which two brilliant albums were forged. But like the collision of matter and antimatter, theirs is an inherently unstable mix.

James and Brian are the right couple. A mutual sympathy accompanies their creative synergy. One wouldn’t think, given their backgrounds, that the two would have much overlap, but in reality they are very similar personalities. During our interview, their genuine affection for each other comes through in the way they finish each other’s sentences and speak of their ongoing collaboration with the pride of happy parents. This level of trust has enabled the two songwriters to fully collaborate on lyrics, something neither has been able to do with much success in the past.

“I think there were moments where I was nervous about it,” James says.

“It stretches our friendship for sure,” Brian says, laughing. “It does, it does. It makes it tough.”

“At the same time,” James continues, “lyrics are like blood from a stone. When I find something I really want to discuss, it can flow. It’s very stream-of-consciousness writing until I can get something that starts to make sense. Brian, especially this time around (on After the Disco) had a lot of a certain subject matter and had—”

“Something I wanted to say,” Brian says. “I never thought it was going to come out like that though. When I worked with other people, I helped with lyrics, but if it’s not my record, I don’t put myself into it so much. Whereas with this one I did, and I hadn’t done that in a long time. I had taken a bunch of time off and I was really in a creative place. I was dying, dying to do something that was my own. Producing isn’t always that way. It’s a great outlet for the most part, creatively, but there’s something about working with James particularly where you can just let it all go out there and just keep the best stuff. Still, I never had planned to do any of the lyrics that way. I had hoped that James would just come back from Portland and have a whole bunch of ideas all ready that I could just help him finish. I think I did more helping on the first record. We never really discussed what After the Disco was going to be about. It’s just the way it came out. I never believed stuff like that could happen. We do stuff from scratch, so there’s scratch vocals on everything.”

“Sometimes we pull little things from that, like the phrase ‘after the disco’,” James says.

“He was singing,” Brian says, “scatting, and it sounded like he said ‘after the disco.’ What does that mean? That sounded cool. That was the first song that we wrote for the album. We sat down right there and wrote the lyrics for the whole song. ‘After the disco’: I know what that meant to me. I won’t say for him, but I know.”

“Yeah, I had my own set of meanings,” James says.

“We knocked it out. I think we knocked it out like, in a day. We just sat down with pen and pads and started going for lines. I got the first verse. We started going with it. Back, forth, back, forth.”

After your faith has let you down

I know you’ll want to run around

And follow the crowd into the night

But after the disco

All of the shine just faded away, ooh

Do what you want, do what you will

Don’t tell me it’s not our time

 That’s Brian’s first verse, and here is the second, presumably written by James:

I see the ashes on the ground

Another world is burning down

And under the cold and empty moon

But after the disco

All of the shine just faded away, ooh

Do what you want, do what you will

But you can’t hide, ooh

 What we have here is a dance song for a post-faith, post-meaning world, one in which the old values, the old gods, and the old safety nets have all fallen away. Adrift in the ensuing chaos, we grasp at meaning and beauty where we can find it. And if we can’t find it, we create it.

Or, if that’s too rich for your blood, it functions as a fine breakup song. Another track, “Perfect World,” addresses similar themes:

I’ve got nothing left

It’s kind of wonderful

‘Cause there’s nothing they can take away

(…)

But I’ve been turned around

I was upside down

I thought love would always find a way

But I know better now

Got it figured out

It’s a perfect world all the same

 After the Disco, then, is an ideal album for both the end of the world and the end of the affair. And the ability to transform such dour subject matter into such ebullient music might be considered a form or alchemy, or an example of what the author Lieb Liebovitz calls the duende. In A Broken Hallelujah, Liebovitz’s intellectual biography of Leonard Cohen, the writer maintains that Cohen’s entire career has been spent in pursuit of this duende, which he defines as the mining of sorrow to produce moments of transcendence. I mention this idea to James and Brian. “It’s the melancholy epiphany,” I say. “But it makes you joyous when you hear it.”

“There’s melancholy in everything, I think, that we do,” Brian says. “One of the things that makes us human is our curiosity. I think that’s a celebrated thing. We know how it can get you in trouble, but also how it’s made us who we are. Self-pity and sadness are a part of it as well. These are not necessarily things that are talked about or celebrated as much, but they’re absolutely there. It explains why so much of our art, which is a representation of ourselves, is the way it is. The most celebrated art in any form at all has to do with sadness and melancholy. Whether it’s films, whether it’s music, whether it’s paintings, all of it. That’s how you know a human did it: there’s some sadness associated with it.”

Brian stops, looks over at me with his heavy-lidded eyes and his embarrassed half-smirk. “I don’t know… I’m trying to get all profound and shit.”

James jumps in. “I love that! I love that!” he exclaims. “I see that in art as well. When you experience something beautiful, there’s always, at the same moment…you realize the fleeting nature of it. That’s the melancholy. It’s always attached. If not, I don’t have time for it.”

“That’s why, when people fake it,” Brian says, “it’s so easy to tell.”

“That’s fine,” James says. “That’s pop music. It’s like: ‘We’re having a blast tonight. We’re partying and it’s fun and we’re young and happy and will live forever!'” He laughs. “That’s great, you know? But at some point you get to a place were that just doesn’t strike you. You have that melancholy epiphany one time with music, one time, and you’re fucking done. You’ll never go back.”

Was that what happened when Brian first heard those mournful notes of Portishead’s “Sour Times”? [Ed. note: See part 2 of the Broken Bells story.] I think so. I remember that perplexed look on his face as he surveyed his music collection: all the stuff that had been his soundtrack for years suddenly had no resonance. Something had reached inside his head and rearranged the contents. And it’s not as if the hip-hop he’d been listening to was lightweight; far from it. Much of it was top-flight stuff, fueled by rage and defiance and leavened with the subversive playfulness of the trickster. It was his foundation. But Portishead offered the sorrow at the end of the line, after all the defiance had failed. It should have been unbearable, yet that hypnotic beat and those atmospheric flourishes made it irresistible. The duende. Not long after that first and only gig we did together, Brian made his way to England in search of Portishead. He found them, but that turned out to be the beginning of his journey, not the culmination. What he had really been seeking was the duende. And he discovered that, like most things we seek, it resided within him. All along he’d been hearing that inner voice reflected back at him through the work of others. And at the intersection of their music and his yearnings, genius began to incubate.

*****

Brian Burton has been involved in a lot of collaborations. Almost all of them ran their course pretty quickly. But in Broken Bells he and James Mercer have found something sustainable, something that could conceivably run for decades. Knowing that they’re in this for all the right reasons, and knowing the combination of curiosity and perfectionism that drives both artists, it’s exciting to contemplate what those future albums will sound like.

Very few people would have predicted fame for either of these guys; they just didn’t seem to lust after it the way most would-be stars do. But having connected with them on the other side of that journey, I believe that they are the only types of people that fame should happen to. It’s wasted on everyone else.

As James sings:

We prefer good love to gold

And the remains of rock and roll

In the middle of the night

We can almost see the way to go

***

Photo credit: James Minchin

 

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