Broken Social Scene have always been less a band than a collective — a onetime incubator of Canadian indie mega-stars that put Toronto on the map around the same time fellow supergroup the New Pornographers were doing the same thing for Vancouver, and Arcade Fire (*cringe emoji*) for Montreal. More than two decades after forming, Broken Social Scene have come to symbolize a maximalist musical time where indie-ensemble bands ruled — the more instruments, the better! Almost like a ’90s ska band, except no one was getting paid just to skank onstage. (No offense to the ska community.)
Beginning in 1999 as a musical partnership between Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning, Broken Social Scene would eventually see close to 30 members cycle through their ranks, with players rotating in and out depending on availability. Some of those early names included the Leslie Feist, Amy Millan and Torquil Campbell of Stars, Emily Haines and James Shaw from Metric, the trio of Charles Spearin, Julie Penner, and Ohad Benchetrit from Do Make Say Think, plus Apostle Of Hustle, KC Accidental, Jason Collett, and others that I’m no doubt leaving out. (Fun fact: Canning was once a member of Len, of “Steal My Sunshine” fame.)
So many Canadian indie-rock figures were born out of the greater Broken Social Scene hive mind that the whole enterprise should be studied — or at least theme an episode of the podcast Sounds Like A Cult. Nowhere is this carousel of talent better exemplified than on the band’s astounding sophomore album, You Forgot It In People, which turns 20 this Saturday.
Usually when landmark records turn A Certain Age, I try not to take it personally or begin digging my own grave. The passage of time is inevitable, and it’s always been a pet peeve of mine when people boo-hoo about how their best years are behind them, it’s been X amount of years since college ended, no good music exists anymore, blah blah — you get it.
That said: Writing a 20-year anniversary essay around this particular album is a gut punch. It’s hard to think of a record that meant more to me as a young adult than this one did. I probably played every track at least a few times on my college radio show; I journeyed to both Philadelphia and New York on multiple occasions to catch Broken Social Scene live (with Feist in the lineup!!). During one of those shows, my then-crush confessed his reciprocated feelings as BSS played “Lover’s Spit.” For me, You Forgot It In People is one of those albums that is so steeped in coming-of-age nostalgia, my pragmatism around anniversaries frankly doesn’t stand a chance. My MySpace name was “Broken Social Thing,” for god’s sake.
The irony is, the lyrics on You Forgot It In People don’t actually make a lot of sense — at least, not enough to form universal emotional attachments to. Unlike other contemplative indie projects of the era — Bright Eyes, the Mountain Goats, Elliott Smith — Broken Social Scene and You Forgot It In People plucked heartstrings in a similar fashion as their all-instrumental debut, 2001’s Feel Good Lost. You Forgot It In People took a massive step forward with lyrics and an extended universe of featured players, but the words they use are vague, seemingly coded, and definitely left open to interpretation according to whoever is listening. To tap into a spectrum of feeling, BSS utilized a world of instrumentals, vocals, and rhythms that could fill an arena or gently score a film narrative. BSS accomplished all of this across 13 tracks and yet funneled every mood, voice, and melody through Drew and Canning’s unified vision. We tend to forget: packing that many creative personalities in one studio can so quickly result in a big ol’ mess, either interpersonally or sonically. But BSS made it look easy.
Produced by David Newfeld, You Forgot It In People was initially released on Toronto indie Paper Bag Records. It slowly picked up steam in the months following its release, spurred on significantly by a rave Pitchfork review (note the original album art) at a time when that site’s king-making powers were first becoming apparent. As 2003 progressed, the album won the Alternative Album Of The Year at the Juno Awards, and BSS made the leap to longtime label home Arts & Crafts, who reissued You Forgot It In People to keep up with public demand. Likewise, the band made the wise decision to create a whole other album out of You Forgot It In People B-sides, aka 2004’s Bee Hives.
And they had ample material from which to choose. Recording at Stars And Sons Studio in Toronto, BSS architected an explosive, completely joyous collection of songs that wind their way from post-rock (“Capture The Flag,” “Pacific Theme,” “Pitter Patter Goes My Heart,” “Late Nineties Bedroom Rock For The Missionaries”) to guitar-pop (“Stars And Sons”) to warped banjo-folk (or whatever word salad best describes “Anthems Of A Seventeen Year-Old Girl”). Then, we have the cascading, galloping wall of sound that is “KC Accidental,” which follows ambient appetizer “Capture The Flag” as the album’s proper introduction, and which I think I recall BSS rightfully using to open their shows around this time.
There is zero filler on You Forgot It In People. Each track compliments the last, even if the vibe switches from the sprawling “Anthems” to the tight, punchy “Almost Crimes” (my personal favorite album track, even if I still to this day have zero idea what it means to “fuck the cause”).
This is also one of those albums that, despite hitting like a maple syrup pie to the face upon release (or at least once it got that 9.2 Best New Music on Pitchfork), had an even more wildly successful long tail. I know this is an exaggeration, but didn’t it feel like You Forgot It In People soundtracked every indie movie and prestige drama made between 2004-2008? “Lover’s Spit” alone was in Lie With Me (2005), Wicker Park (2004), The Love Crimes Of Gillian Guess (2004), Queer As Folk (2003), and the Canadian series Terminal City (2005). (The Bee Hives version of “Lover’s Spit” was also featured on Nip/Tuck.) The L Word needle-dropped “Pacific Theme” and “Looks Just Like the Sun.” “Stars & Sons,” “Shampoo Suicide,” and B-side “Da Da Dada” soundtracked the Ryan Gosling indie Half Nelson (2006). And “Anthems” served as an actual anthem for the teenage character Knives in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2010).
Speaking again of “Anthems,” here’s a nice recollection from Brendan Canning around how the song came together after Kevin Drew told everyone they sounded like “a fucking bar band”:
We were rehearsing for a Broken Social Scene show at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto. The band lineup, which was still constantly changing, but at the point was me, John Crossingham, Jimmy Shaw, Emily Haines, Jason Collett, Justin Peroff and Kevin Drew. Kevin was upstairs doing something but when he came downstairs, he said that we sounded like a fucking bar band so we decided to come up with something better. “Anthems” was getting thought out slowly. I remember whispering the motif of the song to Emily: “Used to be one of the rotten ones and I liked you for that.” I was mumbling it while we were playing and then she interpreted it and made it her own. We spent another week amassing lyrical ideas and getting the song where it needed to be but it was a very “on the moment” kind of writing.
Not the origin story you expect for a spellbinding ballad that has become a sentimental favorite for thousands of listeners, but whatever works, I guess!
Not only did BSS set the mold for some incalculable hybrid of post-rock-meets-stadium-rock-meets-folk-pop, they made the rest of the world aware of the art-school indie-rock wave pouring out of Toronto. They knew Feist when. (An image of Drew and Feist slow-dancing to “Lover’s Spit” will forever be burned in my brain.) They helped popularize the very idea of indie ensemble bands such as Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeros, Sweden’s I’m From Barcelona, the Strumbellas, the Polyphonic Spree, the World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die… just to name a few.
These days, BSS are still going — the collective has gone on hiatus before, but the breaks never seem to last longer than two years. In 2022, they issued the career-spanning Old Dead Young: B-Sides & Rarities set, while the band’s last studio LP was 2017’s Hug Of Thunder. (Kevin Drew has also been faced with accusations of being anti-vax, which is a loaded thing to write, so I’ll just stop right there.) They’ve released a total of five LPs, and their 2005 self-titled LP, IMO, is every bit as special as You Forgot It In People. Everything after that has not particularly registered as vital listening (apologies to any Forgiveness Rock enthusiasts), but that’s not a knock on BSS’ overall artistry. That thinking has everything to do with timing and my own coming-of-age journey. Fellow ’00s high school or college graduates — if you know, you know.
Ultimately, the idea of packing 15+ people in your art-rock band is not an evergreen one. It only works every so often, if it works at all. The only comparable (contemporary) act I can think of might be the War On Drugs, but that’s only because one of its previous members included Kurt Vile and every indie artist in Philadelphia has some six-degrees connection to Adam Granduciel — and anyhow, that band is clearly Granduciel’s show. The actual makeup of BSS might be reminiscent of a time long past, but their abundant creativity and overall influence is still making hearts pitter-patter in Canada and well beyond.