Broken Bells’ “After the Disco”: Quietly Universal

The concept of “universal appeal” has always intrigued me. While it’s an oxymoronic concept in and of itself, that doesn’t stop us from continuing to hypothesize its existence. Is it possible for all of mankind to unite in appreciation of a song? I mean, “Happy Birthday” is pretty damn close. And to my utter dismay, it certainly seemed as if Soulja Boy’s “Crank That” was toeing the threshold in 2007, at least as it pertained to bar mitzvahs.

In theory, the music that is topping the pop charts has the greatest statistical proximity to “universal appeal”, but in reality is often surrounded by fleeting, sometimes manipulated circumstances and a potent counterculture. To escape the wrath of the purists and attain true universal appeal, there has to be a marriage of musicianship and accessibility. It can’t be Fetty Wap, and it can’t be Opeth. This is something I’ve always been drawn to about Alternative music. While many releases under this umbrella exist on the fringes of mass recognition, I often find myself asking “who wouldn’t like this?” when listening to the likes of Band of Horses, Arcade Fire, or The Kooks, for instance. To my ears, Alternative music as a whole comes closest to the balancing act of authenticity and mainstream-ready accessibility.

Which brings us to indie rock band/duo Broken Bells’ second album, After the Disco. Consisting in the studio of Shins’ frontman James Mercer and Brian Burton a.k.a. Danger Mouse, the music on this album is so easy to enjoy it is almost sickening. Of course, my reliably cynical homeboys at Pitchfork weren’t too fond of it, but that site is just troll-laden background noise at this point. Upon hearing the infectious synths of opening track “Perfect World”, the 2015 version of me was instantly hooked. But interestingly enough, I have a feeling that 1999 Backstreet-Boys-fanatic me, 2006 thinks-he’s-black me, and 2009 angry-metal-purist me would all equally enjoy it (hence my rambling intro on universality). In a fluid, consistently interesting 45 minutes, Mercer and Burton weave in and out of dreamy, atmospheric synths, simple and catchy guitar riffs, and 60’s pop worship, only falling a bit flat for me on the bland balladry of “Lazy Wonderland”. Particular highlights include the irresistible title track, the reflective “Angel and the Fool”, and “Holding On For Life”.

Obviously I’m pushing my luck a bit, but After the Disco is a prime example of why Alternative music is – for lack of a better term – quietly universal. While often not entering the Billboard Top 100, artists like Broken Bells and many of their peers make music that is easy to like and difficult to dislike. It certainly leaves me wishing it got a tad more exposure.

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