More Than a Side Project
Broken Bells are Here to Stay

In October of 2008, I got in my car and drove 30 miles to the one theater within any reasonable distance that was playing Synecdoche, New York.

In retrospect, I should not have been surprised that the film didn’t open in every multiplex in the country. It was the directorial debut of Charlie Kaufman, a screenwriter working on levels that most wordsmiths will never reach. His previous films included Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, all surreal and cerebral fantasies, none of which set the box office on fire. And its star, if one could ever really call him that, was the amazing Philip Seymour Hoffman, an actor unconcerned with playing to the crowd – he always used his craft to get at real pain, real beauty and real truth.

Synecdoche, if you have not seen it, is a devastating examination of art as a futile means of encapsulating life. Its script is like a math equation, systematically removing light and hope and leaving you with a despair you cannot even name. And Hoffman’s towering performance, one of the best I have ever seen, drives every nail into your heart. He is fearless and free of vanity. No one else could have played this part, could have grounded this film the way he did.

The theater I saw Synecdoche, New York in was almost completely empty. When the film’s gut-punch of a final scene finished unspooling, and the credits began rolling, I couldn’t move. I had been worked over emotionally, drained and refilled and drained again. I groggily looked around, meeting the eyes of the three other people sharing that experience, and saw they were all struggling to recover from the film as well. It took a while before we could speak. And then, we talked about what we’d seen, about how this film tore us open and left us bleeding and dying inside.

And of course, we talked about Hoffman. His towering performance in Synecdoche, New York may be the best of an extraordinary career. But then, there are so many great roles to choose from. Just recently, he was riveting as Lancaster Dodd in The Master. There’s Father Brendan Flynn in Doubt. Gust Avrakotos in Charlie Wilson’s War. Truman Capote in Capote, for which he won the Academy Award. Allen in Happiness. Joseph Turner White in State and Main. I’m even excited to see what he does with Plutarch Heavensbee in the next two (already shot) Hunger Games movies.

Still, bringing Caden Cotard to life in Synecdoche may be his biggest achievement as an actor. But it isn’t my favorite.

I’m always going to be most partial to Hoffman’s absolute embodiment of Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, a movie that (for obvious reasons) is very close to my heart. “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool,” he says at one point, and the truth of that line reverberates within me. My whole life is about being uncool enough to love something as daft as music completely and without reservation. I adore that film, and I adore Hoffman’s performance in it.

Philip Seymour Hoffman was one of the best actors I’ve ever had the privilege of watching, the kind of actor who could make even the most unpromising premise feel worth seeing because of his presence. He died on Sunday of an apparent heroin overdose. His death has launched a thousand blogs about the nature of addiction and the responsibility of role models. That seems crass to me. All I want to say is this: I will miss his work very much. May he rest in peace.

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It’s hard to get invested in side projects.

So many of them are one-offs, quick collaborations or stylistic diversions that serve more of a purpose for the artists than for the listener. My collection is littered with orphaned records made by artists with rewarding and ongoing main gigs, little whims intended to scratch a certain itch. Sometimes, like Adam Schlesinger’s work in Ivy, they keep going long enough to be interesting in their own right. But most of the time, they’re curiosities, good for one or two listens that will, at best, add color to the main canon.

But every once in a while, a side project will find a groove, and become something special enough that it eclipses an artist’s main gig. That’s what has just happened with Broken Bells, the collaborative project that teams prolific producer Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton with the leader of the Shins, James Mercer. The Shins started out as one of the most promising new bands, with a fine mix of indie-pop rawness and Brian Wilson melodies. But sadly, with 2012’s staid Port of Morrow, the band appeared to be running out of gas. Mercer sounded tired and spent on that album, a solo record in all but name, and the paucity of memorable songs remains difficult to reconcile.

Mercer and Burton had issued the first Broken Bells album two years prior to Port of Morrow, and it barely made an impression. But now, here’s the follow-up, After the Disco, and somehow, the pair has turned this collaboration into something really special. Part of it is focus – this record feels instantly more committed and complete than the first, with a full-blooded sound miles away from the Shins-with-drum-machines feel of the debut. And part of it is the songs. After the Disco is packed top to bottom with superb, shimmering songs.

You know you’re in for something more than a side project from the first track, the six-minute “Perfect World.” Burbling to life on simmering synths that give way to a galloping beat, the song sets Mercer’s high, lovely voice up against me-decade keyboards and blazing guitar. The extended coda is massive, nearly monolithic, the synth line cutting through the oceans of backing vocals. It feels like a proper 1980s epic.

The quality never flags from there. The title track and “Holding On for Life” find Mercer channeling his inner Gibb brother, while Burton lays down convincingly hip-shaking grooves. “The Changing Lights” charges forward with confidence (and a great hook), “Control” could be a long-lost Blondie song, and “No Matter What You’re Told” brings a brashness that Mercer’s rarely shown us. The record ends with a string-laden lament called “The Remains of Rock and Roll” that is a great summation of this new sound, recasting the pair as modern Bee Gees. It’s excellent.

After the Disco is a real surprise, that rarest of side projects that sounds like a full-time endeavor. Burton proves here why he’s so in demand as a producer and collaborator, and Mercer turns out melodies and vocals that put the last Shins record to shame. I sincerely hope they keep this going, because they’re on to something here, and they’re clearly sparking. The Shins may never release another album for all I care, but I’m already looking forward to new Broken Bells music.

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That’s all I have in me this week. Apologies for the short column. Next week, Neil Finn and a couple of piano-poppers. Leave a comment on my blog at Follow me on Facebook at, and Twitter at

See you in line Tuesday morning.