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Album Review: Broken Social Scene “Hug of Thunder”

The 00s indie rock scene was a true golden age. Broken Social Scene were a titan of that era, and their absence since 2010’s Forgiveness Rock Record has been palpable. Since then, indie rock has veered on the side of minimalism – but then again, who does maximalism as well as Broken Social Scene? Is there a band quite as fearless and boundless?

Their long-awaited fifth album is so momentous that it makes sense that it was named after one of the most powerful forces of nature: as band member Brendan Canning says, “It’s just such a wonderful sentiment about us, coming in like a hug of thunder.”

Broken Social Scene pulls out all stops for Hug of Thunder, reuniting all 15 original members of the band. While many of its its breakout stars — including Leslie Feist, Kevin Drew, Emily Haines, Brendan Canning, and Jason Collett — were active before Broken Social Scene originated, they continued their respective projects in the band’s hiatus, rising in fame on their own terms. Now, Broken Social Scene feels like a bona-fide supergroup, but the effect isn’t disjointed in the least. On Hug of Thunder, every member of the band has channeled the best of their individual experiences and talents into an incredibly congruous and compelling sound.

Hug of Thunder also marks the debut of a new female vocalist, Ariel Engle of Montreal based AroarA. Even among the band’s resident powerhouse sirens Feist and Haines, Engle’s voice finds its own comfortable niche; there’s always room for new textures in Broken Social Scene.

“Halfway Home,” the album’s first full track after short instrumental opener “Sol Luna,” is immediately reminiscent of their heyday, with the euphoric, grandiose swells of “You Forget It In People.” Immediately, the listener knows that BSS is back, in all of their glory. In fact, nothing on the album is unrecognizable; most tracks are at least subtly evocative another in the band’s oeuvre, but the album as a whole still feels refreshing and new.

Each song is a standout on its own terms; there is no weakness here. But some particularly notable tracks include “Protest Song”, an impassioned, but not bitter, anthem, interweaving the political with the personal (“You’re just latest in my long list of scars”), and the title track, which allows Feist, who was largely absent on “Forgiveness Rock Record”, to shine (perhaps even brighter than she did on her own album, released earlier this year).

Reflective and wistful, “Hug of Thunder” is maybe the song that most showcases the band’s maturity the most with lyrics like, “Many years before I kept track of the years/ I felt I would look back/ otherwise why did I write down everything that entered my mind.” Broken Social Scene has indeed grown old and done some shit, fulfilling the prophecy they set for themselves years earlier in “Lover’s Spit.” Like last year’s “A Moon Shaped Pool” by Radiohead, Hug of Thunder seems to be an album inspired, at least in part, by looking back.

In 2005’s “It’s All Gonna Break,” the band sang about the desire for “the lovely music to save your lives.” Now in 2017, they seem to echo that sentiment in “Hug of Thunder”‘ with the lyrics, “I had to survive it by the soundtrack made of our short lives,” — “it” being the “numbness, oxymoron of our lives.” The song juxtaposes those sneaky feelings of emptiness that come with age next to a sound that’s still ripe and vivid as ever. Both songs honor music’s ability to bridge the gap between our ordinary lives and something that feels more beautiful, more consequential. Sometimes art imitating life isn’t enough – we rely on it to elevate our lives entirely.

The closing track “Mouth Guards of the Apocalypse” with a title containing that classic BSS absurdity and irrelevance, is bound to be a new live favorite. The song channels every last bit of cascading energy to end with a bang, ensuring that the band’s reemergence will not be forgotten anytime soon. Broken Social Scene is still a band that will have you believing, wholeheartedly, that rock and roll really can save the world in some small but not insignificant way, with their uncanny ability to tap into the indistinct intricacies of the human condition and reflect them back, larger than life.

“Hug of Thunder” is out on July 7th. Stream it on NPR

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