“It is the blessing of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
In their nearly 20 years of existence, Broken Social Scene have established the benchmark for indie rock in the 21st century. They have also become the ideal for what it means to be a super-collective, as each member has achieved success outside the group. Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning have established themselves as two of Canada’s most sought-after producers while also recognized among the country’s great innovators. Leslie Feist and Emily Haines (as a solo artist and through her band, Metric, respectively) have achieved chart-topping success. Amy Millan, Evan Cranley, and Torquil Campbell, meanwhile, continue to create sumptuous indie-pop ballads through their band, Stars. The list continues, although it would take a full essay to write about each member’s exploits.
As each member experiences more success through their various projects, the gap between Broken Social Scene albums increases. Five years separated their self-titled debut and 2010’s Forgiveness Rock Record. With the release of Hug Of Thunder, the break ends at seven years, but another streak continues. Specifically, Hug Of Thunder is a reminder of the exhilarating power of Broken Social Scene’s music and a testament to the chemistry that exists within the fifteen-member collective.
The album is first and foremost a protest one but unlike most that have been (or will be) created. In true Broken Social Scene spirit, the band inject optimism and hope into challenging times. The penultimate track, “Gonna Get Better”, exemplifies the album’s focus. Through a stirring, jazz-infused, pop melody reminiscent of Forgiveness Rock Record‘s “Romance to the Grave”, Drew and newcomer Ariel Engle remind us that things things cannot get any worse. On “Protest Song”, BSS amp up the intensity and deliver a shimmering little anthem. Haines takes the lead on vocals and declares that no one is alone in this struggle. She emphatically proclaims in her trademark whispery vocals, “We’re just the latest in the longest rank and file list / Ever to exist in the history of the protest song”.
A Broken Social Scene album isn’t complete unless there’s an anthemic rocker that gets your heart pounding and stirs your emotions. This comes in the form of “Halfway Home”, a multi-layered composition that echoes the euphoric indie of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. The multiple guitar arrangements and blaring horns are dazzling. The criss-crossing, chaotic harmonies of Drew, Engle, Haines, and Feist, however, give the song its life and urgency.
On “Vanity Pail Kids”, Broken Social Scene offer a glimpse of their creative early days. Part post-punk, part indie rock, part bossa nova, the song is refreshingly different and edgy. Highlighted by the splintering drumming that is akin to the fireworks of Preoccupations’ Mike Wallace and the shotgun blasts of horns, the song is an adrenaline rush that could be the opening salvo into a battle between two combatants.
On the other end of the spectrum, “Victim Lover” is a languid ballad posing as a love song, but it’s the story of dystopian world. “Look at the clues, look at the bruise. Look at all the things that you did lose. I don’t think this girl could crack a smile”, Drew sings with desperation. The next song, “Please Take Me With You”, is indeed a heart-fluttering love ballad. As The Cure-esque riff tickles in the background, Drew seeks to escape with somewhere dear, leaving this place for somewhere filled with light.
Where Broken Social Scene truly shine are on the songs where they allow their imaginations to take over while using the music as the canvas. The title track is the album’s highlight. With Feist at the helm, the band lowers the volume and minimizes the arrangements while writing a song that articulates the conflicting thoughts many have of life today:
All along we’re gonna feel some numbness
Oxymoron of our lives
Getting fed up by that hunger
Supersize we found inside
They will know it’s real, our numbness
Catching up and climbing life
Speaking like a hug of thunder
Lit up by the lights at dusk outside.
On “Stay Happy”, the collective find that perfect balance between ambitious arrangements and thoughtful songwriting. With a funky bass line and a groovy melody, a summery, tropical vibe radiates beneath the lush vocals of Engle, who encourages us to be ourselves in these trying times. Yet the song’s final lyrics are what stand out, as they are an indictment of the band:
The hours the minutes the seconds
The more you are will I be
Will I be me.
With these words, we’re left contemplating the length of the next hiatus or whether this is the first stone of an oncoming avalanche. For now, however, these three lines are a reminder of just how far Broken Social scene have come. In their nearly two decades in existence, and despite their different personalities and individual successes, they are still the greatest indie collective of the 21st century. With Hug of Thunder, they also remind us just how important their music is, especially during challenging times.
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