The appeal of Broken Social Scene’s 2002 breakthrough album You Forgot It in People was largely contingent on its being blessed with a stinging sensation of spontaneity. The record seemed to creatively unfold as it played: taut grooves sprouted from preoccupied noodling, driving crescendos were harnessed and abused, studio chatter interfered at random moments. The Canadian indie collective stumbled upon a cohesive fluke of sorts, a record built by likeminded musicians mining for that elusive sound of something new. Who cared if the record didn’t actually have any songs, in the formal sense — it was inspired, and that infectiousness made the lack of real compositions irrelevant.
The band’s third record, the titularly challenged Broken Social Scene, sounds like it’s trying to recapture that spontaneity in swollen, epic gestures. But synchronicity and charm cannot be manufactured, and so the effort feels unnatural, as if the band is attempting to force an unpredictable good thing into a predictable pattern for success. Either that, or there’s just too many cooks in Broken Social Scene’s kitchen. (The group’s double-digit roster, which includes members of Stars, Apostle of Hustle, and Metric, is appended this time by appearances from K-Os and the Dears’ Murray Lightburn.) Broken Social Scene is a gratuitous collection of repetitive pocket-symphony anthems for the indie set and an unsuccessful regurgitation of You Forgot It in People‘s rareness.
In its ambitious reach, the collective’s weaknesses shine through. The songs rarely make sense beyond their own circle-jerking, lacking any sense of definable structure or purpose except to reach a head-expanding plateau of catharsis and beat it into submission. When this long record (this very long, 60-plus-minute record) reaches its midpoint, déjà vu sets in, and for good reason: Broken Social Scene‘s songs are merely two- or four-chord vamps that, without choruses or verses or bridges, lack an identity outside of the big picture and can’t help but incite comparisons with each other. If there are so many strong talents in the Broken Social Scene family, then why do they create nothing but a prosaic commotion as a creative unit? (Lyrics are an especially rocky area for the band; apparently 15 people couldn’t come up with anything more profound than hooks like “If you always get up late / You’re never gonna be on time / And that’s a shame / ‘Cause I like you.”) Broken Social Scene may relish in the possibilities of its experimental pop, but the band’s fixation on You Forgot It in People‘s blueprint mutates into nothing but single-riffed simulation. On the very basic level of a listening experience, “Ibi Dreams of Pavement (A Better Day)” is a more explosive version of “KC Accidental”, “7/4 (Shoreline)” is a faster, groovier version of “Cause = Time” with a fiery vocal from Feist, and, despite its provocative title, “Handjobs for the Holidays” clicks along as a more densely multi-tracked version of “Stars and Sons”.
In this respect, then, Broken Social Scene is a self-conscious encore to its predecessor. Only in retrospect, after fully digesting the new record, does it align itself in full context: studio encores that improve upon and master the style of a previous effort, like Interpol’s Antics or the Strokes’ Room on Fire, are worthwhile in that they present us with a refined representation of an original thought. But the reconstructed double-dip into a heralded watershed presented here just isn’t as satisfying. Admittedly, Broken Social Scene is massively ambitious, but its ambitions lie in its bulk, not its construction. It’s all layers of guitars and cymbal crashes, feasts of chipper horn sections, peppy drum tracks, mumbled vocals that beget tremendous instrumental climaxes — all full of sounds and furies that do, in fact, signify nothing. Most infuriating is the lack of original ideas, as many of the previous record’s incidentals have been falsified into insincere devices: at least three songs employ studio chatter in their mixes, which suspiciously seems like a blatant attempt to rework the behind-the-curtain allure of “Looks Just Like the Sun”.
And still, despite the land of pretend that Broken Social Scene ultimately, and regrettably, conjures with its complicated game of smoke and mirrors, there are a number of terrific moments on the record. When taken individually, outside the context of the album’s bloated sequencing (and, perhaps, at a safe distance from the context of You Forgot It in People), tracks like the kinetic “7/4 (Shoreline)”, the handclap-saturated chant “Windsurfing Nation” (incidentally, the album’s working title), and the dreamlike “Major Label Debut” all sparkle with fleeting glimpses of the group’s greatness. But you wouldn’t know that by listening to the 10-minute closing track, “It’s All Gonna Break”, essentially a one-song capsule of the record’s sprawling indulgences with five endings tacked on to its last five minutes. The song, like the entire record, is the ultimate slab of fraudulent superfluity, covering up an absence of new ideas by recycling older ones. Overblown and underdeveloped, Broken Social Scene is a deliberate mess veiled as a spontaneous one.