On their first album in seven years, Broken Social Scene distill their sound to a vital essence. The band is focused and renewed, invigorated by the missionary spirit of their best work.
“The cynics fucking hate me. I know that much. They’re not fans.” I’m willing to bet Broken Social Scene ringleader Kevin Drew takes that personally. From the start, Broken Social Scene have made recklessly celebratory music that left their countercultural beliefs buried like dog whistles: “They all need to be the cause/They all want to fuck the cause,” he sang, rather cynically, 15 years ago on the canonical You Forgot It in People, long before virtue signaling and slacktivism became part of the lexicon. But after the Paris terrorist attacks of 2015 inspired a swift return to action following a five-year hiatus, they’re not hiding shit this time around.
Frustrated by people touting concepts of “radical community” and “self-care,” yet spending most of their day treating people like shit online? Hug of Thunder is too. Feel like a washed outcast when confronted by the sterility of festival music and the humiliating sound degradation of digital streaming? Hug of Thunder is too. Tired of nihilism being presented as the only option for rational thinkers? Hug of Thunder is too. While there’s an undeniable power in commiseration, Hug of Thunder is invigorated by the missionary spirit of the band’s best work. Drew and company try to make converts of lapsed idealists and people that remind him of his former self.
2017 has found many of the past decade’s most beloved indie rockacts returning after long layoffs, and as with many of their lead singles, ”Halfway Home” was greeted not with a loud embrace of crackling buzz, but a shrug, disappointed by the lack of novelty rather than marveling at just how Broken Social Scene distilled their essence into four minutes. Which, yes, it sounds just like Broken Social Scene at the times when they’re going to lift you out of whatever hole you’re chosen to wallow in, even if it takes all 30 hands on deck.
The subsequent previews of Hug of Thunder also gave us “googly-eyed dream-pop,” “passed-out drunk and caffeine-wired studio wizards,” and also “the band with Feist in it.” Broken Social Scene are defined by a kind of utopian collectivism, and the lead-up to Hug of Thunder confirms that their excessive generosity can make them a seriously inefficient singles band. But in the same way that the members of Broken Social Scene renounce their star power to present a unified front, the individual songs of Hug of Thunder are best understood as reciprocal parts of a whole.
After the sunrise incantation of “Sol Luna,” “Halfway Home” gets Hug of Thunder to a height where the breathless plunge of the chorus from “Protest Song” can feel like a skydive without a parachute. On its own, “Skyline” forgoes any hook for mesmeric repetition, getting Hug of Thunder to a cruising altitude where “Stay Happy” can serve as a realistic mantra. “Vanity Pail Kids” has the kind of arrangement that would proudly bleed into an undifferentiated splotch on previous albums, but here, the jazz-handed chorus opens the possibility of Broken Social Scene as an up-with-people Earth, Wind & Fire indie-soul revue. Immediately afterward, the subterranean rumbles of the title track are a peek at what Feist’s Pleasure might’ve been with fleshier arrangements. Affecting as it is on its own, it also serves as a necessary segue between the “Vanity Pail Kids” and the muted soul-baring of the second half.
More so than Forgiveness Rock Record, Hug of Thunder presents Broken Social Scene as a rock band making rock songs, a coherent montage rather than a patched-together highlight reel. Any sort of industry leveling-up is probably out of the question at this point for Broken Social Scene and the possibility that they’re going for “hits” is entirely theoretical. They’ve never had a problem sounding big, but the inevitable point on each record where Drew and former producer David Newfeld couldn’t keep their friends in check has always been a subject of “bug or feature?” discussion. If not restraint, it’s possible that working with big-time producer Joe Chiccarelli (whose C.V. includes Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage and Jason Mraz and everything in between) actually provided boundaries. This is especially important as Hug of Thunder starts to loosen its grip in the second half; this is how Broken Social Scene albums usually play out, yet they forgo their typical Side B drift for some of the band’s most personable and emotionally urgent songwriting to date. It’s also where the stakes of the album are set, confronting haters head-on: love songs appealing to the disillusioned, grounding exercises for those with their head in the clouds, finding common ground between “Cause=Time” and “Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old Girl.”
As if their short time on this earth is running out, the band spends the last 15 minutes of Hug of Thunder getting their point across as clearly as possible on “Please Take Me With You” and “Gonna Get Better,” songs that add “plainspoken” and “compassionate” to their many modes. “Future’s not what it used to be, we still gotta go there,” newest member Ariel Engle sings before punning on the title: “Things are gonna get better because they can’t get any worse.” It’s the band’s most audacious dare to cynics—of course it can get worse,they’ll say. It’s probably gotten worse in the time it’s taken you to read this far. But on the ensuing “Mouthguards of the Apocalypse,” Drew speaks to them like a wounded healer. He’s been there and he’d rather kill his friends than see them roll their eyes at a song like “Gonna Get Better.” “I’m trying for the living and I’m staying so I can leave,” he sings on the record’s final words, underlining the message of communal uplift this band has been transmitting for almost two decades: If you forgot it in people, don’t ever let it happen again.
Source: Ian Cohen for pitchfork.com