Broken Social Scene: Hug of Thunder
Broken Social Scene return after a seven-year hiatus with their most vital release since their 2005 self-titled album.
Broken Social Scene is a canonical band whose canonical album, 2002's You Forgot It in People, is one of the shining examples of early 2000s indie. The sound Broken Social Scene conjured on that record, and their 2005 self-titled follow-up, was wholly distinct but elusive. Always beautiful, the band shifted modes and styles throughout the recordings with a freewheeling looseness that was guided by clear emotional precision. Paradoxically, this emotional precision makes it impossible to reduce their albums and songs to strict concepts like "happy" or "sad". By that same token, "nostalgic" doesn't quite feel right either. The paradoxical power of their music conjures the swollen heart intensity of youth. It’s fitting for Broken Social Scene, who was able to swing from singer-songwriter-ish ballads to post-rock influenced explosions, to not be defined by emotion, but, rather, an underlying spirit of an era in a person's life.
While there were other bands that also did the swooning-indie-pop-made-by-a-bunch-of-people thing, like Architecture in Helsinki or I'm From Barcelona, or others chased after memories of youth, like M83 on the aptly titled Saturdays + Youth, Broken Social Scene was able to make the experience real through expression. Rather than rely on cultural signifiers to evoke their teenage dreaming, songs like the Feist-led gems "Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old Girl" and "Swimmers" felt like the genuine article. These oblique, first-person narratives trimmed the distance between memory and emotion because they didn't aim for profundity. Instead, the lyrics are casually obsessive, just like a young person's mind when they start falling in love for the first time. This, coupled with the band's powerful dynamics, made them hit square in the pleasure centers for people finding music on their own for the first time. They even touched the more cynical listeners who weren't into the whole big-hearted emotion thing.
But the Broken Social Scene Hug of Thunder is very different from the Broken Social Scene on those first two records. Hug of Thunder goes a long way in erasing the looseness of previous efforts -- there is nothing on here remotely like the fourth-wall breaking spoken word direction that interrupts the singing on You Forgot's on "Looks Just Like the Sun". There's also nothing lyrically here that's as meaningfully meaningless as "Lover's Spit" or "It's All Gonna Break". Rather, Hug of Thunder is imbued with a sense of forthrightness and direction that other Broken Social Scene records lacked, but its message isn't weighed down by austerity. The band's last album, 2010's Forgiveness Rock Record, presented the group with an air professionalism that felt dispassionate. Here, on Hug of Thunder, they sound rejuvenated with their music taking on a more emotional significance than it has in over a decade.
Where Broken Social Scene once evoked the passionate unease of teenage years, they now capture the passionate unease of adulthood. Lead single "Halfway Home" touches on this sense adroitly with lyrics like "Dreams change and I know I'm gonna die / But I don't need what I know now." Even placed against existential acceptance within a climate of personal and political unease, the band can still point north to a place of learning and growth. "Protest Song" similarly points the way forward with its repeated line, "Days don't end for night's alone." This optimism is mirrored sonically by the record's first half, which is largely made up of the large-scale indie rock that Broken Social Scene made their name on. Like their fellow countrymen Arcade Fire, there's an implicit belief presented in the first half that passionate music can affect change. Songs like “Stay Happy” and “Vanity Pail Kids” imbue a sense of newness into the big-tent Broken Social Scene sound, with the former being driven by a fat bass line and supple drumming and the later coalescing in a horn-driven, fast talking explosion that’s both funky and heavy, besting Arcade Fire at the sound they’ve been mining on their two previous records.
But the band’s multifaceted approach is just as well-served for its most delicate songs, like “Skyline”, “Please Take Me With You”, and the title track. By turns plaintive and direct, these songs approach the unease evinced in other songs by way of surrender, which is a new wrinkle in the Broken Social Scene oeuvre -- not only within the context of Hug of Thunder but on all their records. To this point, the most representative ballad was the repetitive and hypnotic “Lover’s Spit” that lifted you off the ground with its melody and floated you out into the cosmos as it plodded along. It felt raw but was still hidden by slacker obfuscation evidenced in the lyrics, which played like a total after thought. Consequently, a song like “Please Take Me With You” feels like it’s the new standard for the band’s current operating mode as it simply yearns for connection in a world where “all the fools are winning".
By stripping away affectation and honing in on confession, Broken Social Scene made an album that’s unlike the work they’ve done previously. In fact, it’s as significant a work as you could hope to get from a band that formed nearly 20 years ago. Still, as good as these songs are, it won’t make you forget the scattered, accidental majesty of You Forgot It In People or Broken Social Scene. Where before Broken Social Scene seemed to capture lightning (as well as the whole thunderstorm) in a bottle, Hug of Thunder feels exquisitely human with all the requisite limitations that come with a more balanced worldview. Broken Social Scene used to feel like everything, now they just feel like a very good band.