Wednesday, April 28, 2010

"We're Not Above Reviewing Leaks": Broken Social Scene - Forgiveness Rock Record

In Retrospect, Broken Social Scene's 2002 break-out album, You Forgot It in People, must have been the product of a confluence of events and influences falling perfectly into place. On that album, Broken Social Scene sounded like their name--the songs bristled with a loose immediacy. The album as a whole sounded like a heap of loose threads woven together into ecstatic pop songs, acoustic jams, and delicate interludes by an informal collection of music-junky friends locked in a studio for months--and that was a good thing. You Forgot It in People thrived on its organic flow and style, becoming one of last decade's most loved albums. It was an underdog album, a surprising collection of songs that showed up, seemingly out of nowhere, and seduced us with its messy sprawl. I bring these points to my discussion of Broken Social Scene's newest album, Forgiveness Rock Record, because I'm trying to understand why, despite a slew of excellent songs, this new release never quite manages to become the engaging record it appears to be on paper.

To be honest, most of the songs on Forgiveness Rock Record are excellent. Lead-off track "World Sick," combines low-key chiming guitars, driving floor-toms, and a simple vocal melody into an epic, but reserved anthem for the damaged but optimistic. Kevin Drew's opening lyrics establish the problem: "We got a minefield of crippled affection." This problem is more directly named, then, in the songs messy, and dramatic chorus: "I get world sick every time I take a step." And while the lyrics appear, on paper, as hopelessly negative, the delivery paints the song as an affirmation of sorts, an acknowledgement of our damaged circumstances and a promise to make them better. The song's large-scale group dynamics and sing-along feel remind us exactly what Broken Social Scene are capable of. Elsewhere, "All in All," featuring what I believe is Lisa Lobsinger's first lead vocal since joining the band's core, succeeds thanks to the elegant vocals and rich arrangement that combines rapid pulsing electric textures with lush backing vocals and, eventually, some subtle violins. What both of these songs have in common--and what they share with other outstanding tracks like "Art House Director," "Ungrateful Little Father," and "Sentimental X's"--is that the arrangements have a chance to breathe, to become fully formed environments for the listener to inhabit.

In essence, Broken Social Scene's songs work best when they are spacious. That's why You Forgot It in People was such a wildly successful artistic statement--the album was full of arrangements that provided plenty of space for the listener. This allows songs to become something more than melody and lyrics--they become landscapes, ideas, collections of textures and inspired moments lovingly arranged and layered so that listeners can enter into songs instead of merely hearing them. This is something that the band continued to do successfully through their 2005 self-titled album. Unfortunately, that album was a bit too sloppy and unfocused to live up to its predecessor. Now, like with those albums, Broken Social Scene still excel at creating songs that give us this imaginary listening space, but the album suffers from its more conventionally arranged songs that, not only don't quite live up to the gorgeous production that defines Broken Social Scene's best work, but actually impede the album's flow--instead of a giant, open-roofed warehouse, Forgiveness Rock Record is a long hallway with a room for each song. Some of the room's are connecting. Some are huge. Others might as well be coat closets.

How does this tie back to the atmosphere of the first album--that sense of kairos that made You Forgot It in People such a wonderful record? It is in the albums' sense of becoming--the prior album felt like the musical equivalent of a collective--each part, each layer, each texture arrived at and positioned naturally. And, while the best songs on Forgiveness Rock Record feel the same way, a number of good songs--"Chase Scene," "Forced to Love," and "Romance to the Grave," for example--feel too crafted and closed off. While they're good songs in their own right, they don't fit the tone or feel of the highlights, ultimately disrupting the album's dramatic development.

As I re-read what I've written above, I can't help but feel that this review reads harsher than my actual feelings toward the album. Allow me to reiterate--almost every song on this album is good to great, and fans of Broken Social Scene, or just excellent indie guitar pop, in general, will find plenty to love about Forgiveness Rock Record. That being said, when a band has a masterpiece under its belt, it's only natural to consider a new work's relationship to the band's previous greatness. In short, then, Broken Social Scene's latest is an excellent album--easily their second best--but it isn't able to consistently live up to their finest moment. That's a tall order, though, especially when the bar is set as high as it is for Broken Social Scene. That being said, forget about that bar and enjoy this record. Who cares about my own convoluted reasoning for why this album isn't quite as good as one of the standout masterpiece of the 00's. It's an enjoyable and worthy album--not a masterpiece (and I feel like an ass for hoping for one, but why not?) but enjoyable none-the-less.

Broken Social Scene's Forgiveness Rock Record is available on 5/4 from Arts&Crafts.


  1. I haven't heard the new record yet, and I am fairly interested in it, as I do like You Forgot It in People. I do, however, want to push you on the following point:

    the album suffers from its more conventionally arranged songs that, not only don't quite live up to the gorgeous production that defines Broken Social Scene's best work, but actually impede the album's flow

    Isn't it the case that most of YFIIP works because of its "lo-fi" aesthetics. These days, I'd argue that lo-fi is more of a pose than anything else. (Hell, I'd even argue that the lo-fi Holy Grail is just the indie version of voguing, blasphemous as it sounds.) However, I would say that the immediacy of the Scene's best work is felt through production just as much as it is songwriting. In other words, their best stuff is gorgeaous because it isn't gorgeously produced, right?

  2. Yeah, I wasn't totally clear on that--the gorgeousness I'm referring to is that imperfect, messy sound.

    The songs on the new album that are good, but sort of deflate the album are all very tightly crafted, dense rock songs that sound far more conventional.

  3. Again, I think we can be reasonably suspicious of messiness, and what messiness signifies, these days.

    I'll be buying Forgivness soon. If only acquiring actual forgiveness was so easy.

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