Somewhere, Broken Social Scene is still playing live.
The first time I tried to see the band was in 2005, when they were touring in support of their self-titled release. This was back when I was living in Dubuque, Iowa, and my wife and I were simply just courting. She was finishing up her final year in college, and I was coming up for the weekend to visit.
As fate would have it, I learned that Broken Social Scene were playing at First Avenue that same weekend, so I impulsively bought tickets for the show—one of many times early in our relationship where I was like, “Hey honey, let’s go to this thing you don’t give a shit about at all.”
We arrived late—derailed by an afternoon trip to the Mall of America (we were so young back then, so this was still a fun place to go), and also, I had never driven in Minneapolis before, so I had no idea where we were going or how best to calmly handle “big city traffic.”
A pre-Reminder Leslie Feist was opening, and we wandered in as she was finishing up.
I feel like we probably made it through about a third of Broken Social Scene’s set, maybe a little more, when my wife started feeling ill—that’s what First Ave’ll do to you (it’s not the only time this has happened to her.) So, in the short amount of space between songs, we decided to leave. I was disappointed, sure—this was in a time when I was unaware of how crippling my concert anxiety would grow—but I understood that we needed to be moving along.
The second, and final time, that I tried to see Broken Social Scene live was almost exactly three years later, when the band was on the road behind one of their short-lived Broken Social Scene presents… efforts—this time, it was Brendan Canning’s LP, Something For All of Us. Again, the band was playing at First Avenue, in Minneapolis; this time, I went with a group of friends.
Land of Talk was the supporting act, and their blistering (albeit short) live set made me a believer—one of the rare times that I was pleased with an opening band. Eventually, as the evening grew later, a slimmed down arrangement of Broken Social Scene took the stage, launching into the surprising one-two punch of “Late Nineties Bedroom Rock for the Missionaries” and “Shampoo Suicide.”
In my mid-20s then, I had not been one to wear earplugs to concerts (that has since changed) and this show goes down in my memory as one of the most obnoxiously loud I’ve been to—I seem to recall my ears ringing for days afterward.
Touting a lengthy setlist, the band continued to play late into the night, and there became a point when I started to get a little anxious about the time—I had to get up early for a meeting of some sort the next morning. So, as the band went into another song, I turned to my friends and was like, “Yeah, I need to get going.”
They apparently played for, like, a really long time that night, and I guess later in the set, I was told Kevin Drew jumped into the crowd and was giving out free hugs.
Both of these shows ended—crowds dispersed, and the band got back on the bus to head to the next city. However, I didn’t see these shows through to the end, so part of me just presumes that, somewhere, somehow, they are still going.
* * *
Does “indie rock” really grow with you? It’s a question that I’ve been pondering more and more. For acts that rose to prominence during the early to mid 2000s boom for the genre—can you bring their seminal albums with you through time? Can they continue to evolve as artists and maintain relevance with new releases?
Or, do those important albums stay where you found them—representative of a time and place that you can never return to? And does the band remain stunted, unable, or too afraid, to leave the sound that made them who they are?
I’ve realized that “indie rock” doesn’t age particularly well—specifically things from this period of time—the early to mid 2000s. The market was particularly saturated with scrappy, young bands (often from Brooklyn) that managed to score a high rating on Pitchfork, and could tour successfully (for a while) off of the strength of that one record.
But save for a select few, these bands aren’t the kind you grow with, and these aren’t the records you take with you as you grow.
This may, or may not, be the case for Broken Social Scene.
* * *
When was the last time you listened to Broken Social Scene in earnest?
Me—I will occasionally dust off my copy of You Forgot it in People maybe once or twice a year; certainly not a bad record by any stretch of the imagination, and hands down, their finest. It’s bursting at the seams (that’s the point) but it isn’t bloated or overdone, and for the most part, over a decade later, it still holds up just fine.
It was a record I was first introduced to during my final year in college by a friend who was far more into “indie rock” than I was at the time. It was an album that opened up a lot of doors for me, and is one that is representative of that time period in my life—a time of uncertainty and promise.
I still have a copy of their self-titled effort (complete with the additional disc of supplemental material) and despite the fact that I do think about songs off of this record occasionally, I don’t remember the last time I listened to it.
For what it’s worth, I’d forgotten about their last release, 2010’s Forgiveness Rock Record, almost entirely.
Following a seven-year hiatus, the revolving door collective has returned with the head scratchingly titled Hug of Thunder, an effort that boasts 19 musicians, over 15 of which, as National Public Radio claim, are “original members” of the outfit.
If there ever was a white people equivalent to the Wu-Tang Clan—Broken Social Scene are it.
Hug of Thunder opens with a minor nod to You Forgot it in People’s iconic, twinkling introductory instrumental “Capture The Flag.” Here, the brief “Sol Luna” mixes dated, antiquated sounding synthesizers with lush and warm string instruments.
The album’s first single, “Halfway Home,” follows this quiet introduction, and after listening to the rest of Hug of Thunder, it’s clear that Broken Social Scene play their hand entirely too soon. An anthem to end all anthems, “Halfway Home” calls to mind the band’s most bombastic and epic moments from previous efforts, only to amplify those and take it even further. It’s a powerful, go-for-broke moment, with the band laying it all on the line, which is a shame, since they are “going for it” way too early in the record. The album’s most memorable and accessible song by far, sequencing it within the first two minutes of the album proves to be a fatal flaw—it’s all down hill after that.
Hug of Thunder suffers from being just a flat out uninteresting album.
At nearly an hour, it lifelessly trudges along, hobbling through a variety of soundscapes, toying with myriad instrumentation, and boasting a rotating cast of vocalists—including the return of Leslie Feist (whose recent solo outing, Pleasure, proved to be so god damn boring that I couldn’t even listen to it all the way through with the intention of reviewing.)
Any goodwill or momentum gained within “Halfway Home” is almost instantly drained away with the cloying, self-aware, and syllable cramming “Protest Song,” which is, without a doubt, one of the worst songs on the record.
Following this, Hug of Thunder (god I hate that title) descends into generic “indie rock” territory.
Sure, you may take slight note of the swooning and hazy “Victim Lover,” or the rollicking “Please Take Me With You, but the hard truth is that no one song is really any more memorable or special or discernible than the next.
With that being said, it’s the kind of album you’ll hear bumped by public radio stations all summer long, sandwiching tracks off of it in between the likes Spoon, Father John Misty, and Alt-J.
It’s the kind of album you’ll hear coming from the turntables or iPhones of aging hipsters—cool dads who were maybe fresh out of college or in grad school when You Forgot it in People hit, and still follow the band in an effort to hold on to their nostalgia as well as to stay up on current “indie rock.”
As it continues, Hug of Thunder takes cues from another Canadian “indie” behemoth, the Arcade Fire—drawing your attention to the ridiculous amount of pomp on “Vanity Pail Kids,” as well as in the surprisingly underwhelming closing track “Mouthguards of The Apocalypse.”
* * *
You Forgot it in People represents a time that you and Broken Social Scene are never going to get back to—no matter how hard they try, any album they make now will not be steeped in such youthful, reckless urgency; the same can be said of its self-titled follow up—weighed down a little by auxiliary members of the band, it was still a fun record that was able to somehow not collapse under its own ambition, even in the final moments of the epic closing track, “It’s All Gonna Break.”
Shortly after the Broken Social Scene hiatus was announced, the collective’s de facto frontman Kevin Drew was quoted in a Pitchfork interview as saying, “When you want us to come back, give us a call. We’ll pick up the phone,” which is a cute image, but also bordering slightly into messianic territory. And in promotion for Hug of Thunder, it is mentioned that the terrorist attacks in France in November of 2015 wound up being the catalyst for BSS reconvening.
Hug of Thunder isn’t an awful reunion album, and the return of Broken Social Scene isn’t a bad thing, per se; but for those of us who listen to music on a more serious level, it has unknowingly opened the door for a lot of questions about nostalgia and growth. For those who have followed the band and its various off-shoots closely, this is a record that is sure to please.
Somewhere, Broken Social Scene are still playing live, and I am still that 21 year old who nervously stepped into the main room at First Avenue for the first time; I am still that slightly more anxious 25 year old who tried again, only to fail again. Now I am 34, and for those who have moved on, Hug of Thunder is not the kind of record that is strong enough to pull you back in.
Rating: 2.25 out of 5
Hug of Thunder is available via the band’s vanity label, Arts and Crafts.