Friday, June 11, 2010

Roads Not Taken: The Tug of Broken Bells

Every now and then, a song gets up in my head. Lately, that empty space has been reserved for “The High Road,” an ethereal and esoteric ballad by Broken Bells. Before an invasion of the brain snatchers, I was only marginally familiar with Danger Mouse, a multi-instrumentalist producer who reverts to his given name of Brian Burton for the collaboration with James Mercer, lead singer-songwriter of the Shins -- previously not on my limited musical radar. This cut from the new band’s eponymous debut album is literally mesmerizing; I feel compelled to close my eyes and let it carry me away every time. Maybe I’ve got some sort of zen thing going: An experience beyond rational thought; a universal spirit that can zip through each of us, bringing enlightenment.

I wish somebody would enlighten me about the meaning of “The High Road.” On the material plane, the lyrics seem to obliquely address the post-traumatic stress disorder plaguing many veterans, a form of psychological damage that was once called battle fatigue. There are several specific military references: “This army has so many heads/ to analyze...” and “A solider is bailing out/ His lips curled on the barrel...,” for example. Apart from that, however, the imagery is beautifully elusive. The minimalist music video features co-composers Burton and Mercer walking at night down a forlorn two-lane blacktop with flashlights in their hands. They encounter random apparitions -- a traffic accident, a child with a remote-controlled toy car, a burlesque dancer in what appears to be a one-woman girlie show -- but no symbols suggesting the armed forces. The words do not batter a listener with messages. Yet, a sense of foreboding seeps in thanks to lines such as “I don’t know if I’m dead or not/ to anyone...”

Mercer’s lead vocals go from smoothly somber to an edgy near-falsetto to mellow during a chorus with harmonies worthy of The Beach Boys (one of his self-acknowledged influences), while retaining an otherworldly quality that reminds me of Richard Manuel. But The Band, my favorite rock ensemble of the late 1960s, had a more old-timey ethos than the equally soulful Broken Bells. Burton, who’s playing drums, begins “The High Road” with futuristic synthesizer sounds that underscore the piece’s pre-apocalyptic ambiance. This is not unlike what The Police did with guitars for the intro to “Walking on the Moon” in 1979. Sting once said the composition’s sensibility was being “relieved of gravity,” similar to how we feel when falling in love. Broken Bells may be conveying a cosmic heartache from the Great Beyond.

Burton is an interesting and rather unpredictable guy: Periodically collaborating with Mercer since the early 1990s, he’s the other half of Gnarls Barkley with hip-hopper Cee-Lo Green. They found inspiration in spaghetti westerns for their 2006 breakout hit single “Crazy.” In 2004, Burton’s The Grey Album borrowed a cappella phrasings from Jay-Z’s The Black Album and instrumentals from The Beatles, a.k.a. The White Album. He also produced recordings for such diverse acts as Gorillaz and Beck.

Often described as indie pop, Mercer’s style also has a bit of a folkie troubadour bent. If “The High Road” does indeed offer a bleak commentary on the casualties of war, the topic might hit somewhat close to home for him. He attended high school in England and Germany because his father was stationed in those countries with the U.S. Air Force. Who knows what his son actually thinks about the troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan? Those views would not change the elusive nature of the tune in question or the difficulties every one of us faces in trying to take the high road. When it comes to considering the duality of existence, transcendence is what makes any art form greater than the sum of its parts. Zen, for sure. All I know is that I feel as if I’m about to leave my body when James Mercer sings “Come on and get your overdose/ Collect it at the borderline/ And they want to get up in your head.”

* * *

http://lyricsmusicvideo.blogspot.com/2010/01/broken-bells-high-road-lyrics-video.html

* * *

“The High Road”

We're bound to wait all night
She's bound to run amok
Invested enough in it anyhow
To each his own
The garden needs sorting out
She curls her lips on the bough
I don't know if I'm dead or not
To anyone

Come on and get the minimum
Before you open up your eyes
This army has so many heads
To analyze...
Come on and get your overdose
Collect it at the borderline
And they want to get up in your head

'cause we know and so do I
The high road is hard to find
A detour to your new life
Tell all of your friends goodbye

The dawn to end all nights
That's all we hoped it was
A break from the warfare in your house
To each his own
A soldier is bailing out
He curled his lips on the barrel
And I don't know if the dead can talk
To anyone

Come on and get the minimum
Before you open up your eyes
This army has so many hands
Are you one of us
Come on and get your overdose
Collect it at the borderline
And they want to get up in your head

'cause we know, and so do I
The high road is hard to find
A detour to your new life
Tell all of your friends goodbye

It's too late to change your mind
You let loss be your guide
It's too late to change your mind
You let loss be your guide
It's too late to change your mind
You let loss be your guide
It's too late to change your mind
You let loss be your guide


– Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion

No comments:

Post a Comment