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Broken Social Scene recaptures its strength in numbers on Hug Of Thunder

B+
Photo: Norman Wong
Photo: Norman Wong
B+

Broken Social Scene

Album: Hug Of Thunder
Label: Arts & Crafts

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If 2017 is a sort of class reunion for 2000s indie rock—with new albums from Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem, Spoon, Phoenix, Fleet Foxes, The National, Grizzly Bear, and Dirty Projectors all appearing in the same calendar year—then the members of Broken Social Scene are the clique that breaks off from the main festivities. “I don’t want to sound too Norman Rockwell about it, but reuniting with those guys is precious to me,” Leslie Feist recently told Stereogum, ahead of her own long-awaited Pleasure. “The fact that we have that place to come together and have a parallel focus? We all have something to contribute to together? It’s great.” That mutual love—the sound of this roving gaggle of Canadian musicians finding their way back to each other, and just getting high off being in each other’s presence again—colors Hug Of Thunder, Broken Social Scene’s first album in seven years. It makes you grateful they were invited to the party.

At its peak, Broken Social Scene was both one of the biggest things in indie rock and a group containing what were soon to be some of the genre’s biggest names. Hug Of Thunder most recaptures the communal triumph of 2002 breakthrough You Forgot It In People, which synthesized those many talented voices into a joyful, eclectic whole, before they began stealing bits of the spotlight for themselves. The collective enthusiasm throbs from within “Halfway Home,” which opens Hug Of Thunder’s 12 tracks with a string-scraping, drum-rolling fanfare and proves a recent Father John Misty pronouncement—“a lot of indie rock skews closely to worship music”—in the best way possible. It’s a praise chorus, recapturing the potent mix of ecstasy and anxiety that’s long been Broken Social Scene’s stock in trade. “’Cause if you never run, never run / How they gonna catch you alive,” ringleader Kevin Drew murmurs between acoustic picking and morse-code snares.

Hug is also a welcome retreat to those earlier records in terms of production, forsaking the leaner sound of 2010’s Forgiveness Rock Record for the shaggy excesses of both You Forgot It and Broken Social Scene. The dreamier texture of those early records is restored on tracks like “Please Take Me With You” and “Skyline,” the latter of which plays like a shoegaze reimagining of Feist strummer “Feel It All.” It’s telling how easily “Halfway Home” and “Protest Song” slot into the band’s current live sets, whether played back-to-back (as they are on record) or placed next to similarly propulsive favorites like “7/4 (Shoreline)” and “Ibi Dreams Of Pavement (A Better Day).” If there are surprises to be found, it’s in the occasional ’80s pop influences—the spiky Howard Jones horns on “Vanity Pail Kids,” or the gated drums on “Hug Of Thunder” that beg to be slotted on a “Summer 2017” playlist next to Haim’s “Want You Back.”

Granted, at this point, some individual members of Broken Social Scene have become unmistakably distinctive voices within that chorus, and turns at the mic here from both Feist and Metric’s Emily Haines could have easily been released under their own banners. But the spirited backing marks them as uniquely Broken Social Scene works: the chittering guitar on the alternately rousing and heart-rending Haines-led “Protest Song”; the “Pacific Theme” chill-out of the Feist-led title track. Meanwhile, new recruit Ariel Engle makes an auspicious debut on a pair of tracks that punch holes through the gathering clouds of a tumultuous year, optimistically declaring “Stay Happy” and that it’s “Gonna Get Better.”

The timing of its release gives Hug Of Thunder an added boost of urgency: The band that scrawled “We hate your hate” on the back of an album in 2005 is reemerging in a shifting geopolitical climate where the hate just keeps piling up—and even “Gonna Get Better” begins by emphasizing “things will get better,” but pretty soon it’s the “can’t get worse” part that’s the stickier refrain. In the album’s repeated references to numbness, the ambient sigh of “Please Take Me With You,” and the images of retreat amid the pummeling “Mouth Guards Of The Apocalypse,” the album flirts repeatedly with a sort of resigned surrender. Even in “Protest Song,” Haines follows years of Metric tunes poking fun at empty politicizing with the chorus, “We’re just the latest in the longest rank-and-file list / Ever to exist in the history of the protest song.”

But Hug Of Thunder ultimately finds the reason to carry on in each other. “Looking at the general state of the world right now, we knew that putting our unified friendship out there was a great protest that we could do,” Drew recently told Pitchfork. A single song isn’t going to change the world, but 18 musicians finding their strength in numbers again can help make the morass a little more tolerable.