Broken Social Scene is back and they've stumbled upon their second straight-up masterpiece. Plain and simple.
"I hope to some day express in song the emotion and warmth and humanity that [Broken Social Scene] capture without a single fucking word in 'Shampoo Suicide'."
-- Cymbals Eat Guitars' Joseph D'Agostino on You Forgot It in People, Aquarium Drunkard
Forgiveness Rock Record ends with one of the worst lyrics ever penned by mankind: "Me and my hand", Kevin Drew wearily intones over plaintive acoustic strumming, "have been together / Since I was born".
Although rock music is often granted a certain amount of leeway in the lyrical department simply because, by its very nature, it's rock music (and therefore excused of any intellectual fallacies), the statement of being together with your hand since you were born seems to signify...nothing. There's no drama, no interest, no anything. It's a rather quixotic line that leaves us wondering if Drew's unique brand of introversion has finally gotten the best of him, perhaps having finally migrated into full-on pretentious territory.
Yet it is at that moment that Drew usurps our expectations once again. Immediately following the line "Since I was born", he then starts to say "Since I was in love", but he never gets to finish saying "love", as the whole song suddenly gets lost in an echo chamber full of swelling synths and muted voices, with Drew's words disappearing in the ambient swirl, almost as if he's afraid to say it (which makes his a capella coda of "I will always love you" all the more potent). At barely two minutes in length, the song feels tossed off (which, given that it was initially to be included on the between-takes ambient EP that accompanied pre-orders of Forgiveness Rock Record, it most certainly was), but even with its rushed development, it still holds up after multiple listens, awash in more than enough mystery, emotion, and power to justify its existence.
Upsetting expectations has always been a part of Broken Social Scene's M.O.; after all, they live in a world made almost entirely out of contradictions. They are a single cohesive unit despite being made up of roughly a dozen other bands and artists (Stars, Metric, and Feist chief among them). Their iconic 2002 indie-rock masterpiece You Forgot It in People came only one year after their ambient-instrumental debut album (the criminally-neglected Feel Good Lost), and -- just because they apparently couldn't wait to put out more singles -- they followed that up with a full-fledged B-sides compilation only two years later (Bee Hives). To some, following their only real pop-album with a rarities comp may seem like a self-serving kind of move, but to Broken Social Scene, it was just another day at the office.
Yet something got lost between You Forgot It in People and the group's third disc, 2005's relatively muddled Broken Social Scene. As Zeth Lundy pointed out in his review of BSS, part of what made You Forgot It in People work was its immediacy, the sense that grooves and choruses were unfolding right in front of you, as if the band suddenly just came up with the idea as you were listening to it. Emotional without being overbearing, propulsive without having to dumb itself down, You Forgot It in People remains a powerful listening experience, while Broken Social Scene -- awash in fields of sound, barely-there melodies, and an emotional detachment that seems to have stemmed from too much time noodling around in the studio -- is the result of having too many cooks in the kitchen, wherein everyone wants to do their own thing and nothing is collectively accomplished. Some heralded the album while others decried it, but for most observers, it seemed that Broken Social Scene's otherworldly magic had disappeared just as quickly as it had arrived.
None of this backstory, however, could prepare anyone for the absolute marvel that is Forgiveness Rock Record. Finally leaning into the pop instincts that the group has danced around for almost a decade now, never before have we heard Broken Social Scene sound so joyous, so excited, or as in love with music as they are here. "We've got a minefield of crippled affection" the band coos on opener "World Sick" as small little keyboard trills and fluid basslines dance around them, resulting in one of the catchiest songs the group has ever penned. It starts off with the same can-do spirit that You Forgot It in People possessed, but once the towering chorus kicks in ("I get world sick / Every time I take a stand" they cry over thundering power chords), it suddenly becomes clear that Broken Social Scene have set their sights on becoming more than just critical darlings: they want to rock stadiums now. Cellos mix with drum beats on the fade out, ambient effects float in and out, but at the end of the day, "World Sick" is one of the most immediate tracks the group has ever made, and, from the sounds of it, they're all the better for it.
What ultimately makes Forgiveness Rock Record work as well as it does is the sheer diversity of the songs at play. The frenzied, paranoid pulse of "Chase Scene" tosses wah-guitar licks right out of a Tarantino film with '80s synth patterns and a full-blown string section, which -- on paper -- sounds utterly ridiculous. In execution, however, it proves to be one of the most remarkable detours the band has yet to produce, with each chorus slowly building the tension until it almost becomes unbearable. Even lead single "Forced to Love" -- with its exotic keyboard trills and harmonized vocals on the chorus -- sounds like total chaos the first few times out (just how many different guitarists are playing on this track, anyway?), but each passing repetition unravels more little sonic details (the very selective use of reverb on the vocals, the warm keyboard underplaying the chorus), which only wind up strengthening the tracks in the long run.
Along the way, it feels like Kevin Drew and co-founder Brendan Canning are pulling a mid-period Beatles rivalry by trying to top each other track for track, Canning playing McCartney to Drew's ever-erratic Lennon. For each Macca-indebted pop stunner that the band hands off (as on Apostle of Hustle’s horn-driven blast "Art House Director"), Drew responds by unleashing an alternately dark and sexy little song like "Sweetest Kill", in which a seductive bassline hides just how dark some of Drew's lyrical themes have gotten (romance, abandonment, and death are chief among them). After Drew wound up scoring a guest spot from his idol J. Mascis on his thundering solo single "Backed Out on the ...", Canning one-ups him by writing a Dinosaur Jr. jam of his own ("Water in Hell") while throwing in some "ooh-ooh" vocals and oblique lyrics that would make Stephen Malkmus proud ("Well the truth be a liar / A stone-cold messiah / It's time to let the cash roll in").
This atmosphere of friendly rivalry bleeds through every track on the album, and the vibe is positively infectious. Although the template from the dance-ready "All to All" seems to have been ripped right from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' "Zero" (staccato electric guitar hits merging with minimalist club beats), the wave of female vocals that flood in at 1:39 suddenly lift what would be an above-average dance-rock hybrid into something far greater than the sum of its parts. The group seems to be gleefully ignoring any notion of the idea that pop songs don't immediately lend themselves to high art, and wind up working both categories with relative ease. Hell, by the time the thundering feel-good jam "Meet Me in the Basement" is over -- climaxing with an explosion of guitar solos and battling horn sections -- it's only then that you notice that the band, perhaps so taken away by the energy of the session, completely forgot to throw in vocals of any sort.
It's this kind of reckless, anything-goes mentality that makes Forgiveness Rock Record as enjoyable as it is: Each track has its own distinct identity, the songs never once threaten to bleed together, and the whole thing only gets better with repetition.
Yet this also leads to the one criticism that FRR is most likely to run up against: Its lack of a true emotional core. Amidst all the in-studio high fives and colorful textures spread throughout, there isn't a song on the level of You Forgot It in People's "Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old Girl" or "Looks Just Like the Sun" with a comparable kind of impact -- at least on the surface, that is. Yes, the vibe to FRR is joyous and fun all the way through (even during quiet moments like the acoustic-lead "Highway Slipper Jam"), but that doesn't mean that there aren't dark themes to be found inside. Although Drew's "Ungrateful Little Father" at first seems to be all fun and games with its positively upbeat instrumentation, a closer look at his often-beguiling lyrics reveals something much deeper at play:
Ungrateful little mother-fuck
Beat-you-up with bedrooms of ice
I see you got another-one
Bet you think that you wished twice
I see you standing over there
The milk is gonna bring you a fight
Ungrateful little mother-fuck
A brand new breakthrough device
Although Drew keeps dancing around the idea of familial abandonment with these elliptical lines, his sense of isolation can still be felt, even as pianos joyously plink away behind him. This isn't the only time he pulls this track either, for even on something as joyously disposable as "Texico Bitches" (note the bass work ripped wholesale from the Flaming Lips on the chorus), Drew's vulgar slang soon turns into a near plea for the Texico Bitches to stick around out of a fear of lonliness, the only line in the chorus being "I want to be fair". The song is still catchy as all get-out, but the more time spent with these lyrics only shows just how dour Drew's outlook can be. Marrying strangely dark lyrics to infectious harmonies is nothing new in pop music, but as is often the case, we get lost in tension between these opposing ends.
Forgiveness Rock Record may at first seem too breezy for its own good, even disjointed at times -- far removed from the high-art rock of You Forgot It in People. Yet each pass through reveals a new layer, a new element, a new theme that was lost in the fun vibe the first time out. Before long, Forgiveness Rock Record stops being Broken Social Scene's "pop record" and starts turning into the most cohesive statement they've yet made. No two songs are the same, but each one is quietly cohesive and frighteningly brilliant in its own way, sell-out accusations be damned. Forgiveness Rock Record is not the sound of Broken Social Scene dumbing themselves down; it's the band taking their sound to its logical conclusion. Few people would've guessed that in doing so, they've stumbled upon their second straight-up masterpiece.