Has there been a better collective in the past two decades than Broken Social Scene? I really doubt it. The amount of talent inside and on the periphery of this band is monumental. Feist, Metric, and Stars are the obvious touchstones — and they all deserve articles like this of their own one day — but even the smaller groups and progenitors of BSS are beyond compare: hHead, Do Make Say Think, Apostle Of Hustle, Cookie Duster, and, of course, KC Accidental. These bands grew out of — or, really, created — the hotbed that was the late-’90s/early-’00s Toronto music scene, and all of them owe their enduring popularity, at least in part, to the massive force that was Broken Social Scene. And though Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning would become the axis around which the group eventually spun, there are countless others that contributed to the revered status that the band has today. Broken Social Scene were a collective in the best sense of the word, and the ever-expanding and -contracting nature of the group was built into its foundation. From the band name on down, Broken Social Scene were destined to lead a fractured, messy existence.
First off, it’s impossible to write an article about this band without paying tribute to This Book Is Broken, an essential document if you want to know about the band’s formation, trajectory, and initial impact. In 2007, Stuart Berman — one of the first to write about BSS in any critical capacity, mainly because he ran in the same Toronto circles as them when they were first starting out — went around and interviewed pretty much anyone who had anything to do with the band or the scene that they inhabited. When it was published in 2009, it may have felt slightly premature, but a few years down the line, Broken Social Scene’s impact is undeniable. You can see their sense of an insular but inviting community in pretty much every music scene that exists today, from the incestuous feeling of the DIY communities in Brooklyn and Boston to the participatory quality of acts like Los Campesinos! or The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die. What Broken Social Scene did wasn’t necessarily groundbreaking or revolutionary, but they provided a beacon of possibility that a community could sustain itself through music, even in the 21st century. So This Book Is Broken stands not as some throwaway of an also-ran group, but rather one of the strongest works of modern music journalism, an oral history that mythologized and solidified a band’s origin and rise before they were ever really codified into the canon. To understand how BSS operated in any intimate sense, the Book is essential.
And Broken Social Scene were an intimate, complicated group. It’s easy to cut corners when it comes to explaining their long and storied history, and I’m going to do so because A) it’s extraordinarily convoluted and B) it’s a little boring, and the whole thing is better explained as it’s laid out in This Book Is Broken. For our purposes, just picture a huge family tree of overarching projects and one-offs and loosely associated friends, all converging in the same city and going out and getting drunk together and then making music. As far as I’m concerned, Broken Social Scene were the entirety of the Toronto music scene for a number of years. So many artists got pulled into their orbit that what ended up coming out the other side was a compendium of a whole city’s worth of music, and that disparate collection of influences threads itself through every song that the band has ever made.
Of course, all things must have a beginning, and the most significant predecessor to Broken Social Scene was KC Accidental, the first project between Kevin Drew and Charles Spearin. It’s a name that will forever be memorialized on the celebratory second track of You Forgot It In People, probably long after the fledgling band itself will be remembered. KC Accidental most resembles what BSS would eventually go on to become, a meld of post-rock and collectivist spirit. The duo put out two albums, Captured Anthems For An Empty Bathtub and Anthems For the Could’ve Bin Pills, the latter of which featured a number of contributors who would serve as the foundation for Broken Social Scene.
It was KC Accidental’s work that led Drew to meet Brendan Canning, a quasi-veteran of the insulated Canadian rock world who was seven years Drew’s senior. Canning had found some level of success a few years before BSS got started with his own band, hHead. But at the time that hHead was on the rise, Canadian labels were having difficulty getting bands to cross over outside of their nation’s borders. Acts like Godspeed You! Black Emperor were slowly chipping away at that divide, but Toronto may as well have been an island at the turn of the millennium for how much success it had at transitioning its popular acts to the world-at-large. Once a band was popular in Canada, there was really nowhere else to go. So hHead languished, and Canning, feeling burned by his negative experiences with the Canadian major-label world, saw in Drew’s optimism and drive a fresh-faced opportunity.
The two would go on to collaborate on Feel Good Lost, the first album billed under the Broken Social Scene name. It’s the most shut-off and experimental of their records — Canning and Drew worked on it largely alone, feeling each other out as they went along. It’s a solid effort with a lot of potential, full of hints at the heights that would be reached in its wake, but the two of them just weren’t sure-footed enough yet to make it completely work as a whole. It sags in some parts — something that can’t be said about any other album the band put out — and, because of that it often feels like an outlier in the group’s discography. The strongest tracks on it — “Passport Radio” and “Love And Mathematics” in particular — show an adept feel for ambience, mostly fueled by Drew’s previous work with KC Accidental, but while the spark is there, the fire hadn’t ignited just yet. Feel Good Lost is still Broken Social Scene figuring out what they wanted to be, but one thing is for certain: The chemistry between Canning and Drew is palpable.
All of the creative energy that they built up working on FGL absolutely exploded on You Forgot It In People, the first record where the group really started operating as a collective, embracing an open-/revolving-door policy to their ranks that would both help and hurt them in the years to come. It was also the record that would catapult the group to fame. You Forgot It In People was produced by Dave Newfeld — an honorary member and vital part of the group’s recorded output — in his Toronto studio, Stars And Sons, over the first half of 2002. There was no real plan or pre-production process for the album: The main method was just to hit record and see what happened. “It was more like a recording project that turned into a record,” early contributor and Stars member Evan Cranley noted in the Book.
That loose nature is inherent in the appeal of the band, and was molded into its DNA from the start. You Forgot It In People sprawls outward, but in a focused way — the tracks run long, but they don’t feel long; not everything has a purpose, but everything feels purposeful. Canning helped to rein in Drew’s more meandering tendencies: YFIIP is more structured than what Drew and Spearin were doing with KC Accidental, but it still carries the same kind of emotive, heavy weight. At its most freeform, the album had more in common with improvisational jazz than an indie-rock record. But when the band decides to lock into place — like they do on “Stars And Sons” and “Almost Crimes” — there’s nothing more powerful. Both modes are equally satisfying, but the latter focus is the probably the reason BSS blew up like they did.
There’s a discernible reason that You Forgot It In People still feels so powerful and fresh, even as it ages gracefully. Because despite acknowledging their forebears, Broken Social Scene never felt beholden to their influences or the contemporary music atmosphere, and that was mainly because of the way it was recorded. “You Forgot It In People will always stand the test of time and be unique because it was made without any guidelines or rules,” Drew said in the Book. “[Newfeld] had no idea about anything [happening in indie-rock] but he knew what great music was.” By disregarding or just unconsciously absorbing and morphing the trends that were prevalent, Broken Social Scene would end up kicking off a trend themselves.
And trendset they did: You Forgot It In People was huge. It won them the Juno Award for Best Alternative Album; it basically bankrolled the collective’s freshly-started label Arts & Crafts for a few years until Feist’s solo effort Let It Die came around in 2004. The album propelled them into the public eye, demonstrating that a Canadian band could take the world by storm with the right music and might (and, of course, a Pitchfork rave). Broken Social Scene are the reason why bands like Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade — both of whom released their debut albums in 2005, right as Broken Social Scene were already rounding the bend for their second go-around — had the framework to break through like they did.
Broken Social Scene spent the next few years touring the globe, their lineup constantly changing as members dropped out to pursue their other bands only to join back in later on when they could. Their state of constant flux informed the band’s next album, the triumphant sounding self-titled that nonetheless was built more on loss than success. “There was a different vibe: It was dark, angry, muffled, repressed, betrayed,” band member and Drew’s then-wife Jo-Ann Goldsmith recalled — they’d end up getting a divorce during the recording of this album. “The love felt like it was gone. […] [Broken Social Scene] was about love lost.”
Their third album was recorded in fractions from early 2004 through the middle of 2005 during breaks in the grueling, relentless tour schedule. Once again, they recorded much of it at Newfeld’s Stars And Sons studio, and the band has said that the producer was largely responsible for piecing the album together from the scraps that they would leave behind. “The album is even more of a leap than You Forgot It In People because some of these tracks started in one place and leapt into a whole other zone,” Canning said of the piecemeal way in which the album was made. While the band itself was out touring, things were being worked out back home without them.
At least around the time the interviews were conducted for This Book Is Broken (two years removed from the self-titled’s release), the band seemed a little ambivalent towards the album they had put out: “The record’s a mess,” Cranley admitted in a surprisingly candid moment. He’d go on to describe their state of being in blunt terms:
I like the record, but there are tracks that are almost impossible to listen to. It’s true, I’m sorry. There’s that track “Our Faces Split The Coast In Half” — that’s the sound of anxiety, that’s the sound of pressure, that’s the sound of things falling apart. There were so many things that were happening in our personal lives that got spit out on that record.
And though that kind of narrative of a band being stretched beyond its already amorphous limits is tempting to fall back on for the purposes of a dramatic arc, the tumultuous period surrounding the album’s recording doesn’t really show when you’re listening to it straight through. It’s there in the lyrics if you look hard enough, sure, and in the back half of the album, when it leans toward abstraction that culminates in the euphoric heights of “It’s All Gonna Break.” But the album’s fractured origins only helped to strengthen it, because Broken Social Scene contains some of the band’s most fun songs, the ones where they stretch their sound the most. There’s the rap-featuring “Windsurfing Nation,” the catchy-as-fuck college-radio fodder “7/4 (Shoreline)” and “Swimmers,” the spunky, nervous singalong “Fire Eye’d Boy.” If You Forgot It In People was the band in scrappy-upstart mode, then Broken Social Scene saw them acting as the indie-rock stars they had become, indulging on every whim and coming out the other side unscathed.
The release of Broken Social Scene came with it even more attention and accolades: They picked up another Juno Award, and embarked on yet another long tour. The feeling was a little different this time around, though. They were no longer the young, fresh upstarts that they were in the wake of You Forgot It In People: Band members had started to set down roots, the idea of a dozen-plus members dropping their lives and going on tour was becoming more and more untenable. So the gears started to turn to transform Broken Social Scene into a viable long-term act. Because Feist, Emily Haines, and Amy Millan — the three female vocalists who were integral to the band’s foundation and sound — were starting to gain more recognition for their own respective projects, other vocalists were subbed in for them on tour because the possibility of any of them showing up to guest star in a show was becoming increasingly unlikely. As the band became more of a stable entity, they also lost some of the ramshackle charm that they’d previously had. In the years following the self-titled’s release, Drew and Canning both put out albums under the Broken Social Scene Presents… banner, and embarked on tours under the same heading as a way to carry on the collective spirit of the band, if not the same lineup.
After their 2008 tour, the lineup for the band solidified around Drew, Canning, Spearin, Andrew Whiteman, Justin Peroff, and Sam Goldberg, and the six of them set out to make what would become the band’s next — and, for the moment, last — album, Forgiveness Rock Record. They dropped longtime producer Dave Newfeld in favor of Tortoise and the Sea And The Cake’s John McEntire — Drew and Spearin had bonded over their love of Tortoise when they formed KC Accidental, so in a way, it was the band coming full-circle and paying homage to their influences.
They recorded most of the album at McEntire’s Chicago studio, complete with his vast treasure chest of gear and knowledge. That new recording environment coupled with the band’s mounting ambitions resulted in the most lush, spacious album in Broken Social Scene’s discography. But while it’s beautiful in a lot of ways, it never really stuck with me like their two other big ones did. It sounds like a culmination of the wide net that BSS had always tried to achieve with their music, but it just feels a little hollow for finally getting there.
More than ever, the seams showed in the way the album was constructed. While the self-titled’s piecemeal creation only made the album stronger, Forgiveness Rock Record places Drew in the role of director, steadily guiding the ship until it reaches its destination. That idea of directorship had been floated since the band’s inception, and resulted in some of Broken Social Scene’s most tightly constructed tracks, but this is the only time that way of putting things together felt more studied than naturalistic. Forgiveness Rock Record has a paint-by-numbers approach in a way that Broken Social Scene never had before. “We just entered someone’s magical little kingdom for a spell,” Drew said jokingly in an interview around the time of the album’s release, but that offhand comment describes the album in a nutshell more than it probably intended to. But Forgiveness Rock Record wasn’t a totally bum note to go out on: At its best moments, it captured the magic of what made this group of people so special. It just didn’t do so nearly as consistently as they did before.
Broken Social Scene are a group with four great albums to their name, with two stone-cold classics, and that’s more than most get. And who knows what the future will hold — the spirit of the group hasn’t dissolved completely. Some members of the band have got back together for festival sets every year for the last three years, Kevin Drew released a great solo album, there was a celebratory performance of “Almost Crimes” on Jimmy Fallon to commemorate Arts & Crafts 10-year anniversary. These highlights are sure to keep coming in a seemingly post-BSS world. The very nature of the band means that it’s never really over.
In the foreword of This Book Is Broken, Canning says: “Because this band has always followed its natural path, it’s hard to predict with any certainty what’s going to happen to us next.” That uncertainty has always hung over the collective — almost every show at the end of a tour was advertised as their “last show ever,” both a canny bit of marketing and a way of acknowledging the tenuous makeup of the group itself. While it does seem like they’re in a cooling-off period for now — and maybe forever — the magic of this band is in the unknowing and the anticipation, in the possibility that a few years down the line they’ll have crossed paths enough times to scrounge up another full-length. Broken Social Scene have always been about the friendship between these people above all else — how the frays and the deep bonds of these connections can be translated into their music, how they can make it feel like you’re a part of their world, too. They never really played by the rules of a traditional band, and now doesn’t seem like a good time to start.
“Every interview I’ve ever fucking done has asked, ‘Is Broken Social Scene breaking up?’” Haines recalls in the Book. “But you can’t break something that’s already broken! It’s broken, it’s permanently broken. The only way you could destroy it would be to actually fix it.” Until the world doesn’t need any more fixing or all the members of the band are dead and buried, Broken Social Scene will be always be around, somewhere.
10. “Forced To Love” (from Forgiveness Rock Record, 2010)
If “Major Label Debut” (see below) is the sound of Broken Social Scene easing off the gas a bit to avoid creating a signature hit, then “Forced To Love” is what happens when they push down full throttle and fly past hits altogether. It’s too chaotic to be pop, too dynamic to be strictly rock — instead, it occupies a satisfying middle ground between the two. There’s that riveting, cinematic hook, one of the best in a Record full of those kind of widescreen gasps. It follows the more traditional verse-chorus-verse construction of their other accessible tracks like “Swimmers” and “7/4 (Shoreline),” but it doesn’t feel bogged down by that weight. There are a lot of bands that churn out “Forced To Love”‘s and “Fire Eye’d Boy“‘s like it’s nothing, but Broken Social Scene are one of the few that have the kind of ambition and talent to turn those gambits into gold. A whole catalog full of these would be super popular, but wouldn’t have the lasting appeal that BSS have — a smattering of these types of songs across their discography feels just right.
9. “Major Label Debut” (from Broken Social Scene, 2005)
Broken Social Scene itself never fell prey to the dreaded words contained in this song’s title, but “Major Label Debut” is weighed down with the aches and pains of the members within it who did. Even though the Toronto band made their own space within the flailing Canadian label system, people like Canning still bore the scars of disappointments past. The story of the construction behind the song echoes the anxieties associated with hitting it big: The “fast version” of the song, which was eventually included on a separate EP, was scrapped from the album’s tracklist in favor of the queasy, slow-moving elegy that appears instead. A straightforward rock song was morphed into a prison that exhibits both contempt and complacency for the executives that threatened to trap them. Both versions are powerful, but only one could have possibly marked the band as an indie one-hit-wonder. Drew wanted to consciously avoid that fate, and so the alternate take of “Major Label Debut” was born and immortalized on their self-titled.
8. “Stars And Sons” (from You Forgot It In People, 2002)
Named after Dave Newfeld’s studio where the band recorded the majority of their first two albums, “Stars And Sons” feels like it’s more emblematic of the community that was built there than whatever the hell else it’s about. The lyrics are as patchwork as the cut-and-paste album cover of You Forgot It In People, and they make about as much sense as you want them to. In his first-ever go as lead vocalist, Canning mumbles under his breath, “This one will know how far to live on,” a circular sort of phrase that seems to go nowhere quickly. But what you lose in those words, you gain in texture — his voice provides something to latch onto as the instruments go buck wild around him. There are those handclaps, which morph into a scattering of applause by the end; the gurgles of noise and yelps that eventually lead the track to its denouement. It’s the kind of song that envelops you, makes you feel like you were there when it was being recorded. It’s a song that demonstrates Broken Social Scene’s transportive technique at its best, one that sweeps you off your feet even when you’re not exactly sure why or how.
7. “Anthems For A Seventeen-Year-Old Girl” (from You Forgot It In People, 2002)
The concept of anthems stretches back to KC Accidental’s mythology. Their two records were anthems for the Could’ve Bin Pills, for an Empty Bathtub — that motif resurfaces on “Anthems For A Seventeen-Year-Old Girl,” one of the emotional high water marks of You Forgot It In People. “Anthems” is something of an outlier in the Broken Social Scene discography. It’s an anthem in the truest sense of the word: the replication of a feeling — in this case, deep adolescent despair, and the youthful nature of change — that gains power through hearing it over and over again until completely submerged. “The repetition became this momentum,” Haines said of the track in the Book. “And I feel like that’s my contribution to the band: the textural voice as an instrument.” Except that Haines’ words are just as all-consuming, if not more so, than the sagging sound around it: “Park that car, drop that phone, sleep on the floor, dream about me,” she chants. The repetition becomes a curse, and then circles all the way back around to being a gift.
6. “Sentimental X’s” (from Forgiveness Rock Record, 2010)
There were only a handful of times that Broken Social Scene got super-meta on how their relationships influenced the creation of their music, but those tended to be when they shined the most. Usually, their inner workings were all subtextual — you picked up on their deep connections through the band’s natural way of playing off each other — but on “Sentimental X’s,” the highlight of Forgiveness Rock Record, they directly address the shifting foundation of the group and their growing distance from each other. Every line here sounds like a testament to the undying bond and foundation that the band provided: “Friend of a friend you used to call,” “off and on is what we want.” The weight of time is behind those words, and it comes across so strongly because it had been so long since their flagging days of youth. Almost a decade separates “Sentimental X’s” from the band’s formation, and the wisdom and confidence and maturity that comes with that is filtered throughout the song. They’re far enough away from the lost loves and battered friendships that were a result of the band that the song holds all the soft nostalgia of an old photograph. It was the first song that all three of the main female vocalists — Feist, Haines, and Millan — ever appeared on, and none of them were ever in the same room at the same time to record it. Instead, they were placed on top of each other in post-production, but it’s one of the few times on Forgiveness Rock Record that the nature of its fractured creation actually contributes to the sense of community that the band fostered. That, despite none of them recording their harmonies together, you can still feel their deep love for each other underneath it all.
5. “Lover’s Spit” (from You Forgot It In People, 2002)
“Lover’s Spit” has all the smoky, hazed-out mellowness of a dark club that reeks of sex and debauchery. It’s no wonder that Lorde was enamored enough with the song that she chose to shout it out on one of her own. It’s intrinsically tied to adolescence and puberty, a time where there’s a lot of sex without consequence, without commitment, as an escape from dealing with complicated relationships (“Swallowing words while giving head”). There’s a youthful naiveté to the track that reflects part of the band’s upbringing in high school — “Everybody [in this circle of friends] has fucked everybody, and to me it’s not that sinister — it was really innocent and lovely,” Emily Haines said of that time in the Book. That kind of carefree attitude shines through in how “Lover’s Spit” revels in its sleaziness, but there are also signs that Kevin Drew realizes that maybe he’s a little too old to be talking and feeling like this, that the kind of lifestyle they’re glorifying can’t last forever: “You know it’s time that we grow old and do some shit,” he sings wistfully. It’s a track tearing itself apart from either end. But mostly, it just makes you want to fuck, to be back in the mindset where you were an active participant in the heat of this song.
4. “Superconnected” (from Broken Social Scene, 2005)
“Superconnected” is the point on Broken Social Scene where all the tension surrounding the recording process starts to leak through, and to great dramatic effect. The buildup/breakdown cycle that the band goes through on this track is just insane, some of the tightest work they’ve ever done. You can sense the claustrophobia crowding around every inch of this song; how all these band members are tied to each other, and how those ties threaten to cut off all circulation. It’s noisy and chaotic, the sound of a band on the verge of extinction. But they lean back from the edge just a bit. They allow enough room to breath that it ends up feeling like some sort of catharsis, however unhealthy that conclusion may be. “Superconnected” is another example, like “Major Label Debut,” of Drew pulling back in order to embrace his love of abstraction and fear of linearity: “It could’ve been the next U2 smash,” band associate Jeffrey Remedios remarked in the Book. “[Drew] just took in a different direction, and the end of the day, it was a more interesting song.” That catchy underbelly is what makes the track so great, but what makes it one of their best songs is the off-the-rails anger and distaste that it evokes. Through its pummeling of sounds and squeals and textures, it feels like both the cause of and resolution to all of the band’s problems with each other.
3. “Cause = Time” (from You Forgot It In People, 2002)
Broken Social Scene were rarely overtly political in their songs, but I still consider You Forgot It In People to be a strongly political album. In fact, some days I’d go as far as to say that it’s the best post-9/11 album that wasn’t trying to be a post-9/11 album. From front to back, it crackles with the kind of incendiary frustration and anger that was in the air at the time, and of course that would make its way into the tape deck. When it felt like everything was going to shit, so too does that album, and this song. Of course, the band had a different perspective being from the Great White North, and “Cause = Time” put the target on those who rally around religion and violence as a motivator to exact more of those punishments on the world. “They all want to love the cause/ They all need to be the cause/ They all want to dream a cause/ They all need to fuck the cause” — the irritation and resentment in those lines is unmistakable, and makes for one of the band’s most enduring songs.
2. “Almost Crimes” (from You Forgot It In People, 2002)
“Almost Crimes” is some scuzzy, ferocious rock genius. It pits Broken Social Scene’s polarities against each other — the improvisational, out-of-control practice-space feel against the more composed, cutting, passionate wallops — and turns out a song that relishes in its unfettered abandon. The song’s construction is pretty simple: You can almost picture them messing around on their guitars and feeling it out, adding piece after piece and layer after layer until it’s one huge, squalling fireball, but the result sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before. Feist claws her way into her upper register, screaming out against horns and chaos and barely breaking through. “We’ve got love and hate — it’s the only way.” This song is the confluence of those emotions, rattling around in your brain at the same time. It has to be illegal to feel that shitty and that euphoric in the same breath.
1. “It’s All Gonna Break” (from Broken Social Scene, 2005)
“It’s All Gonna Break” was first sketched out during the You Forgot It In People era, but it doesn’t feel like it ever belonged anywhere else but as the closing statement to their self-titled LP. It encapsulates everything that made the band so special into nine minutes of raucous, devastating jubilee. It’s a thematic continuation of “Superconnected” — and, really, all the songs on the back half of that record are tightly coiled together — but it’s also its own huge, lumbering, burdensome beast. On its own, it’s a testament to the strength and power and hope and hate for which this band provided the fuel. Really, who would have the tenacity to think that you could bottle up a time, an emotion, a whole city, and not have it explode into shards in your hands? On “It’s All Gonna Break,” BSS directly confronts their impermanence and doesn’t back down. Broken Social Scene carved out this insular, beautiful world for themselves and then proceeded to shit in it in the way that we as humans tend to ruin all the good things that we have. The peaks and valleys of this song are the sound of the band coming to that realization themselves. Its climax serves as the thesis statement for the whole project: “You all want this lovely music to save your lives,” but it’s implied that not even that can be enough. At least it’s something.