clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Broken Social Scene Is Back, but Also Never Left

‘Hug of Thunder,’ their first album in seven years, is lovely, rousing, and extremely well named

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Let’s all join hands and revisit the prettiest and grossest alt-rock power ballad of the early 2000s. It’s called “Lover’s Spit.” Bring mouthwash, and also Purell.

Very pretty. Pretty gross. Broken Social Scene are a Toronto-based collective comprising anywhere from six to 600 people. They’d be one of those winningly pompous “more onstage guitarists than crowd members” propositions, were it not for their 2002 breakthrough album You Forgot It in People, which did wonders for their average crowd size. They have a new album, Hug of Thunder, out Friday — their first in seven years. It’s lovely, and rousing, and extremely well named. But go back to the old stuff first, if only to connect with their younger selves, and maybe your younger self while you’re at it.

“Lover’s Spit” was You Forgot It in People’s apex, a woozy and pornographic piano jam about the sobering allure of young, drunken lust. From the onset, singer and nominal frontman Kevin Drew had a talent for making the vague sound devastatingly specific, the prurient sound profound:

If that ain’t explicit enough for you, the second verse adds the line, “Swallowing words while giving head.” Maybe stage-cough real loud during that part, if you’re listening to this with your mother. But the real action’s in the chorus, which is as startled and lackadaisical as the rest of the song, but stumbles across something approaching wizened grace:

Eleven years later, on “Ribs,” a gorgeously morose deep cut from her debut album, Pure Heroine, Lorde paid tribute to some crucial makeout music from her, uh, youth, beginning thus:

Fun fact: “Ribs” is the best song on Pure Heroine. Bonus fun fact: Lorde was 16 years old when it came out. It drives you crazy, listening to extremely young people agonize about the aging process. But Broken Social Scene have that effect on people: a paralyzing nostalgia for 30 seconds ago, a cautious but infectious optimism about what’s coming 10 years from now. “You said we’re halfway home,” goes the first monster chorus on Hug of Thunder. “You said survive.” It is the sound of growing old and doing some shit. You can never be too old for that sort of thing, and never too young, either.

You Forgot It in People is a delightful time capsule for an era when an ecstatic Pitchfork review could seemingly catapult an artist to modest stardom single-handedly — a preview of the Arcade Fire–style feeding frenzies soon to come. Broken Social Scene were billed as a supergroup of bands you just didn’t know you loved yet, and many of its offshoots — the dream-pop melodrama experts in Stars, the flashy New Wave bruisers in Metric — now have deep discographies and obsessive fans all their own.

This crew’s most famous member is, of course, Feist, the unlikely iPod Nano spokeswoman whose 2007 solo album The Reminder is probably as great, or at least as commercially appealing, as egalitarian Canadian alt-rock gets. Here she is tearing into You Forgot It in People’s noisy and exuberant “Almost Crimes” in 2013 on Jimmy Fallon, in a rowdy 10th-anniversary performance that nicely encapsulates the band’s “let’s put on a talent show and all perform simultaneously” appeal.

Feist has likewise moved at a leisurely pace since that heyday and put out a modestly excellent new solo album, Pleasure, her first in six years, just this April. But her brief brush with megafame never threw Broken Social Scene out of orbit or overshadowed her many bandmates.

That pattern holds true on Hug of Thunder, the first BSS record since 2010’s Forgiveness Rock Record and a bombastic but somehow gentle fount of resilience and resistance. (Resilience in the face of what is up to you: For many listeners, the aging process will be quite enough.) The sound is mercifully unchanged: pure Classic Indie Rock with noisy bedroom-ambient undertones but a fundamental and strident 600-guitar swirl that will never quite be in style again and will never go totally out of style, either.

Metric lead singer Emily Haines take the lead on “Protest Song,” breathy and propulsive, with a typically personal approach to the political: “Well it is whatever it is / And you are wherever you are.” Newer recruit Ariel Engle, an odder and more ethereal presence, handles “Gonna Get Better” (“Things’ll get better / ’Cause they can’t get worse”) and “Stay Happy,” which is even more hell-bent on finding joy amid whatever might be causing you despair. (“There may be dogs at the door / But you are a lottery winner / And maybe it’s my heart / That keeps me dreaming”). But the Feist-driven “Hug of Thunder” is the best thing here, blooming slowly into one of those miniature-supernova choruses that makes just enough sense, suggests just enough romantic profundity: “All along we’re gonna feel some numbness / Oxymoron of our lives.”

The night after the terrorist attack at a Manchester Ariana Grande concert in May, Broken Social Scene opened their already-scheduled show in the city with “Anthems for a Seventeen Year-Old Girl,” yet another You Forgot It in People highlight. It’s one of those deeply weird and affecting songs that takes teenage love and lust and confusion as seriously as teenagers take it. Johnny Marr dropped by to play one of the 600 guitars. And the chorus made as little sense and still somehow hit as hard as ever: “Park that car / Drop that phone / Sleep on the floor / Dream about me.”

Flagship indie-rock bands much younger than Broken Social Scene — Dirty Projectors or Fleet Foxes, for example — have gone through wildly accelerated fame cycles since their own breakout moments, and returned with 2017 comeback records that play like deconstructions or outright denouncements of the sounds that first brought them to prominence. But every new BSS record plays like a greatest-hits collection that just happens to be all-new material, never matching the shocking rush of You Forgot It in People but capturing plenty of the afterglow. Consider all this proof that you can get the old band back together, or better yet never break it up in the first place, and have it mean more to you as a 40-something than it meant to you as a 20-something. Lorde will probably dig it, too.