For all the hype that had been built up around the idea of Broken Bells, their self-titled first release sounds very much like what you'd expect. James Mercer, the front man behind the indie pop miracle band The Shins, has teamed up with the trip hop, entrepreneurial producer and musician Danger Mouse (responsible for acts such as Gnarls Barkley and The Gorillaz). Even by the first the time the rumors of their collaboration broke out, they were destined to be the indie scene's "next big thing"; 2010's version of The Postal Service. And in many ways, Broken Bells offers some of the very same motivators and claims to fame that Ben Gibbard's indie-gone-eletronica band did back in 2003: hearing everyone's favorite indie songwriter recontextualized. But rather than utilizing these more rigid models of genre-crossing, Broken Bells finds more creative and organic way to reconcile the gap between indie rock and hip-hop. Because the two music icons actually got together and recorded in a studio like a normal band would, the resulting songs quite often find that sweet spot between experimentation and accessibility. In a musical culture where sampling and imitation are the popular forms of genre-crossing, its refreshing to hear two artists from different backgrounds who are just sitting down and making music together.
Being his first real release since The Shins' third record, "Wincing the Night Away" in 2007, Broken Bells also gives room for some of the darker, more cynical aspects of Mercer's unique and eloquent songwriting. Having recently left the Sub Pop label and fired two members of The Shins, there's no question that Mercer has had an eventful couple years. Fortunately, Mercer's existential thoughts on life and love in "The High Road" and "Sailing to Nowhere" are some of Mercer's best songs since Chutes Too Narrow. In one of the best songs on the album, we find Mercer profoundly depressed about the purpose of life in the bubblegum wrapper lines of "Your Head is on Fire", once again proving his mastery of the craft. Ultimately, while the collaboration couldn't possibly live up to the ridiculous buzz that surrounded its formation, it did provide a comfortable space for these two respected artists to create and collaborate in a way that is a joy to hear.