After seven years away, Broken Social Scene have returned with Hug Of Thunder, an album that’s a galvanizing reminder of the strength of the Toronto indie-rock scene. In fact, there’s been a lot of music this year that has served as a reminder of the longevity and potency of the ragtag crew that ushered in the Bush years. In the past months, we’ve had stellar comebacks from Feist and Do Make Say Think, and new albums from Emily Haines and Stars are on the horizon. Contrast the unassuming returns of these early-’00s artists that deliver the goods with some of the louder returns that might not — those of infinite content loops and incessant teasing — and it’s pretty easy to spot the difference.
Broken Social Scene have never been a cynical group, especially when it comes to their music, and there’s no performative trolling to be found in its expansive lineup. Instead, Hug Of Thunder is just a refreshing and welcome excuse for a bunch of old friends to get the gang together again and create some solid songs that don’t reinvent the wheel but hit often enough to justify these people’s continuous orbit around each other. They prefer a more hands-off approach to publicizing their music, wagging their finger at society but never getting too involved, preferring to let their art speak for itself. “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,” band ringleader Kevin Drew said in a recent interview, and he’s totally right: Broken Social Scene’s mere existence at this point feels at odds with a world that’s increasingly fractured and disconnected, and because Hug Of Thunder’s ambitions are simple, it means the execution is right on point.
When we last heard from the Canadian collective, they were probably due for a bit of a breather. Forgiveness Rock Record also came on the heels of a long break in-between albums (five years, to be exact), but it felt constrained by each member’s varying levels of success and availability. There were high points for sure — “Sentimental X’s,” “Forced To Love,” and “All To All” in particular — but the album also sounded disjointed in a way that they never had previously. Kevin Drew slid into the role of director, and while the idea of ceding control and trusting each other’s instincts has been part of the makeup of the band since the beginning, Forgiveness Rock Record had a paint-by-the-numbers approach that made the collective’s chemistry feel more studied than naturalistic.
They’re more cohesive this time around and present a more united collaborative front. On Forgiveness Rock Record, it sounded like some contributions were done begrudgingly as a way to keep the old ship sailing — see how the vocals for “Sentimental X’s” were recorded separately; it was the first time all three lead female vocalists appeared on a track together, but it also felt oddly anti-climactic for what it should have represented — but there’s a palpable sense of community on Hug Of Thunder. Broken Social Scene sound more mature and leveled-out, a result of growing up and seeing all your friends grow up alongside you. Time has a way of flattening out conflicts that maybe weren’t that big of a deal in the first place, and Hug Of Thunder comes across as an appreciation of the super-connection that all the band members share.
Some of the best Broken Social Scene songs played off their conflicts with each other, though, which means that even the highest highs on Hug Of Thunder can’t touch the youthful alchemy of the collective’s best albums together — You Forgot It In People and their 2005 self-titled — but there is an urgency and restlessness to Hug Of Thunder that’s a little surprising given that all the members have seemingly settled down into adulthood. This is a tighter and more direct iteration of Broken Social Scene than we’ve heard in the past. Where previous albums allowed space for longer epics or ambient interludes, Hug Of Thunder continues a streamlining that started on Forgiveness Rock Record: Every track on the album is a fully fleshed-out song and, whether it’s an anthem or a ballad, pretty much every song falls into one of those two categories.
That means there’s not much breathing room on the album, and sometimes the songs bleed together and become indistinct without the sonic variation that their more experimental discursions provided, but it also makes the album sound like it’s constantly barreling forward. There’s a do-or-die mentality that feels like it fueled the album, like some sort of doomsday switch clicked and the band realized, “If not now, then when?” Whether that motivation comes as a result of our dire global political situation or each of the band members’ increasing age (probably both!), it means that Broken Social Scene are firing on all cylinders at all times on Hug Of Thunder. And the impending apocalypse is certainly on the collective’s mind. The last song on the album is even called “Mouth Guards Of The Apocalypse,” and it’s a noisy and chaotic burner about fighting against self-annihilation and trying to save your friends from the same fate along the way. “It’s all we believe/ I’m trying for the living and I’m staying so I can leave,” Drew sings on the final lines of the album.
Broken Social Scene have always had politics at heart, and Hug Of Thunder comes at a time when their downstairs neighbor is going through its craziest upheaval since You Forgot It In People became one of the best post-9/11 albums that wasn’t really trying to be a post-9/11 album. The collective is conscious of their status as activists, and they acknowledge their place in the history of protest music on highlight “Protest Song,” an energetic track on which Emily Haines chants: “We’re just the latest on the longest rank and file list ever to exist in the history of the protest song.” The ways that politics infect their songs isn’t always that obvious, though, and Broken Social Scene do their best work when they’re more inferential, using broad strokes which could be applicable to their personal struggles as well. Lead single “Halfway Home” takes off like a high-speed chase of someone trying to outrun their past before it inevitably catches up to them, but it also contains a pressing line like “You’ll forget/ Call out for change/ But not believe in anything” that speaks to a more pointedly political sense of purposelessness. The penultimate track on the album, “Gonna Get Better,” comes packaged with a warning that’s both ominous and hopeful: “Things’ll get better ’cause they can’t get worse.”
Rather than offering solutions, Broken Social Scene mostly offer tips on how to survive in this new age. It’s clear from Hug Of Thunder that the band believes that interpersonal connections are what will help us weather the storm. Like, say, getting back together with old friends and making some revitalized music that might help push some productive discussion on how we might harness our own inner strength to counteract the overwhelming forces of negativity and hopelessness in our world. The best songs on the album are the ones that blend evocative personal storytelling with messages of self-possession. The rippling title track, which Leslie Feist originally brought in as a leftover from her Pleasure writing sessions, is a moving narrative about gradually finding strength within yourself: “All along we’re gonna feel some numbness/ Oxymoron of our lives/ Getting fed up by that hunger/ Supersize we found inside.” That look inward in order to overcome is also expressed in “Stay Happy,” which sees newcomer Ariel Engle taking the reins to find her voice both literally and metaphorically: “The more you are, will I be me?” goes the existential question at the heart of the song. And on “Please Take Me With You,” they show how self-assuredness can lift others up around you: “We’ll run away for life.”
Hug Of Thunder is exactly what you’d expect from Broken Social Scene after seven years away, and there’s comfort in the idea that this group of people will forever be intertwined as the world burns down around us. It goes to show that, as much as we may lack control over the big picture, there’s a radical power in investing our time and energy in the friendships that will get us through the rest of our lives. Broken Social Scene have always been about harnessing their connection and projecting it outward. The Hug Of Thunder in the album’s title is quite literal — a mass of sound that’s meant to comfort as much as it is to inspire awe. And, hey, if that sounds corny, it’s preferable to the pessimistic opposite. That won’t do us any good in the days ahead. We should be grateful that a band like Broken Social Scene can still make music that’s as reliably anthemic and vibrant as this.