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Review: Broken Social Scene’s Hug of Thunder Is a Welcome Return From Indie Rock’s Most Ambitious Romantics

Seven years after their previous album, and a decade and half removed from the record that earned their spot in the canon of 2000s indie, Broken Social Scene are back–all 15 of them. For the first several songs on their warm and rewarding comeback album Hug of Thunder, it often sounds as though every member of the familial Toronto ensemble is playing at the same time. After a brief ambient introduction, it’s one anthem after another: “Halfway Home,” a superconnected slab of feeling from de facto bandleader Kevin Drew, with too many guitar tracks to count; “Protest Song,” an Emily Haines number that makes up for its decidedly non-polemical lyrics with a martial snare drum crescendo that might convince you to join BSS’s revolution even if you don’t know what it’s about; and “Skyline,” whose cyclical structure gives it the feeling of a long, triumphant coda to the two songs that came before. It’s exhilarating, but it’s a lot to take in.

With the exception of their understated and mostly instrumental 2001 debut Feel Good Lost, Broken Social Scene have always been a bombastic band, a tendency they fully embraced on 2010’s Forgiveness Rock Record. Many of the most affecting moments in their catalog, however, are quieter. And it’s just after its huge opening triumvirate that Hug of Thunder reveals its true character in “Stay Happy,” a comparatively restrained composition featuring Ariel Engle on vocals. (Engle’s lilting voice fits the band’s languid atmosphere so naturally that you’d be forgiven for failing to realize she’s a brand new member.) The song’s breezy beginning recalls Marty Paich and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s bossa nova arrangements for Astrud Gilberto, and BSS’s own Brazilian-leaning instrumental “Pacific Theme.” After that, “Stay Happy” is sprightly and syncopated–funky, even. Rather than engaging in a unified assault, the band leans back to afford each other some space, filling the gaps between Engle’s lines with delirious melodies that lend the tune an uncharacteristic lightheartedness. without robbing it of pathos.

Like Forgiveness Rock Record before it, Hug of Thunder and its songs may as well have been named with a Broken Social Scene title generator. And if you’re a fan of the band, you pretty much already know what you’re getting into. Fortunately, the stuff BSS is selling–ambitious, unabashed hymns to the transcendent powers of love, community, sex, and rock’n’roll–has only gotten rarer in the years since their last outing. The band’s return in 2017 feels, if not momentous, at least extremely welcome.

Hug of Thunder is at its best when Broken Social Scene is loose and willing to experiment with its formula, as with “Stay Happy.” On “Victim Lover,” Drew and Engle sing together in a dense arrangement of guitars and winds while a dubby bassline bubbles up to the surface from the depths; “Vanity Pail Kids” rides a nearly industrial pulse, with rigidly rhythmic horn charts that come off like Tower of Power as covered by a MIDI sequencer. Alongside their catalog of singalongs that directly attack the heartstrings, BSS has a way with quasi-songs and instrumental interludes that make their emotional appeals more obliquely, like “Shampoo Suicide,” the cascading collage from You Forgot It In People, or Broken Social Scene’s “Windsurfing Nation.” Hug of Thunder follows Forgiveness Rock Record in leaving behind these bewitching artifacts, opting instead to do its sonic adventuring within the boundaries of the proper songs themselves. You Forgot It In People, still the band’s best album, plays like a collection of fevered sketches conceived in a sweaty suburban bedroom. What Hug of Thunder loses in that sense of romantic adventure, it gains in thematic unity. It’s the most cohesive record in Broken Social Scene’s catalog so far.

The only quibble to be had with Hug of Thunder comes in its lyrics. In the past, Drew has buttressed his universal paeans with moments of striking specificity. “It’s All Gonna Break,” the grandest and most sweeping song he’s ever written, opens with the line “When I was a kid, you fucked me in the ass”; You Forgot It In People closes on a devastating ballad about a man’s unrequited love for a guy who’s still in the closet. On many of Hug of Thunder’s incantatory songs, he does not counter the flights of his heart with the weight of lived experience. “You wanna be the size of your love / You wanna be the size of your god,” he sings on “Vanity Pail Kids,” and you wonder whether he’s directing that line of critique at himself.

The album’s most memorable words come instead from Leslie Feist–who, if her recent solo output is any indication, is currently reaping the pleasures offered by her own idiosyncrasies as a songwriter, mercifully freed from the constraints of iPod-commercial microstardom. Hug of Thunder’s five-minute title track is a free-associative tear through glowing scenes of young adulthood, beginning with a jotted down journal entry about the wayward Pink Floyd leader Syd Barrett and ending with an ominous reference to a military base. (In its vivid rendering of these snatches of life, “Hug of Thunder” resembles recent autofictional novels by Ben Lerner and Karl Ove Knausgaard, and the efforts of musicians like Dave Longstreth and Mark Kozelek to render the tactile thrills of these writers in song.) Love can be ecstatic and transformative, worthy of Hug of Thunder’s biggest and loudest moments. But as Feist conveys so deftly, it can just as often be plain confusing, like everything is happening at once.

Read ‘Broken Social Scene: Friends Forever,’ our July cover story on the band.