Spotlight: Broken Bells

“AFTER THE DISCO”

Columbia Records

Broken Bells straighten out their priorities on their second album, “After the Disco.” James Mercer, the Shins’ singer and songwriter, and Danger Mouse, the producer whose real name is Brian Burton, staked out a concept on their first album as Broken Bells, the 2010 “Broken Bells”: They delivered downhearted lyrics using a very particular palette. Broken Bells determinedly reconstructed an analog era steeped in wistful memories, using sliding synthesizer lines, Kraut-rock bass tones and primitive drum machines. Unfortunately, they got so busy showing off their allusions that the solid songs were buried in gimmicks.

“After the Disco” keeps the concept and fixes the mix. The album is still an exercise in style. Mercer and Danger Mouse, who between them play nearly all the instruments, flaunt their vintage equipment (or convincing counterfeits) and echoes of 1970s and ‘80s hitmakers like ELO, the Bee Gees, a-ha and the Eagles.

It’s more or less the same sonic terrain as the first album; nearly every instrumental timbre, from the rhythm section to simulated horn arrangements, is rounded off. But this time Broken Bells focus on the songs, not the sounds. The change is the sum of a lot of tweaks, the most important of which is that Danger Mouse’s production constantly keeps Mercer’s voice in the foreground.

He sings about varieties of desperation and loneliness, about withdrawals and breakups, about longing and resignation. The songs are full of characters — some in the first person — who are lost, aimless and uncertain; the singer offers reassurance if he can. “I saw that look on your face/ You don’t need me now,” Mercer sings in “The Changing Lights.” “And sometimes you wonder if it’s all/ Just another mistake.”

The pop structures, meanwhile, are comfortingly crisp verse-chorus-verse and the settings are, at best, subliminally familiar without being too blatant about their sources. At times, Broken Bells stray over that line; the chorus of “Holding on for Life” is a little too Bee Gees for its own good, and “Control” doesn’t steer clear enough of “Hotel California.” Yet the album is full of lovely little touches, like the fluttering flutelike sound that agitates the plaintive “Leave It Alone,” or the gauzy sway of “Lazy Wonderland.”

Broken Bells are still as openly self-conscious as they were on their debut album; “We prefer good love to gold/ And the remains of rock and roll,” Mercer sings in the album’s closing song. But this time they don’t flaunt their cleverness; they let a listener discover it after the songs sink in.

— Jon Pareles, The New York Times