My wife and I were married on our college campus on a warm Saturday in August. It wasn’t a convenient spot for many of our guests, but they came anyway, arriving days, hours, minutes before the ceremony. As a reward of sorts for the early birds, Sarah and I hosted a karaoke party at one of our old haunts, a sports bar just on the edge of town. It was an incredible sight to see all our friends together, to join our cliques, to celebrate something powerful with music and beer and pretzel bites and wings. But, now, as I remember that night, I’m a little sad. I don’t know when, or if, all those people will ever be in a room again.
Since their establishment, Broken Social Scene were Canada’s musical Avengers*, putting members’ musical projects at the center of the indie world and creating some of the most jangly, expansive pop rock of the aughts. So, when BSS went on hiatus in 2010, their fans must have felt the same melancholy pang I did at the end of that hot August night, like some combination of air and light had left the room.
Luckily for those fans at least, the collective has finally returned with Hug of Thunder, an album that drops listeners right back into the melting pot of Toronto’s indie scene. The album has all the BSS hallmarks: melodies to spare, dissonant shifts in tone, and a shade of political and social rage that just colors the lyrics just enough to tap your maple tree.
That mellow ire is showcased on “Protest Song,” an album highlight that frames the end of a relationship as a sort of regime change. Emily Haines’ vocals, always a crucial ingredient in the BSS alchemy, are sweet and clear here, like harmonium keys. But when she starts cramming too many syllables into the chorus – “We’re just the latest in the longest rank and file list ever to exist in the history of the protest song” – the controlled chaos the band is known for rears its head to perfect effect.
Hug of Thunder absolutely soars when it plays content off context like that. Another track, “Gonna Get Better,” kicks off with the best lyrics on the album: “Future’s not what it used to be / we still got to go there”. The cynicism on display is tempered by the fact that the song sounds like Adele-produced-by-Aaron-Dessner. It feels like we’ve heard this song before as a kiss-off to a former lover, but it hits us in new ways by casting the world’s present political malaise as the ex.
Despite the bite, there’s still beauty on display. Some of the album’s strongest moments are when it slows down and lets you get lost in the soundscape. “Skyline” and “Please Take Me With You” are the winners here, and it’s impressive that after nearly twenty years as a band, BSS can still make simple lyrics like “Please take me with you / I want your heart” cut so deeply.
While coming back from a long break with songs this tight is a win, BSS newbies might find themselves at a loss with Hug; in the past seven years, a glut of more accessible lo-fi indie pop acts rushed to fill the broken Broken Social Scene scene. If Best Coast, Wavves or Alvvays are your touchstones for this kind of sound, the “so what” of this comeback could remain elusive. “Halfway Home” will have listeners punching air, but BSS doesn’t do the pure sugar hooks those bands built careers on. That’s not to say Hug of Thunder is a monotone slog – it’s not – but rather to point out that it rewards active listening. It’s sounds a little like the album cover looks: a bright white blur, with textures that come into focus as you get closer.
The record got me thinking about that night out at karaoke. As much as I would’ve loved to sing silly songs with my friends into eternity, all parties end. And as we all get older, we realize that what happens between parties matters just as much as what happens at them. But having everyone together that night reinvigorated a lot of relationships, just as a new BSS album always does. After all, the best part of their work is that when you’re done with it, you’re pumped to go catch up with projects from the whole crew – Kevin, Brendan, Metric, Feist, Stars, Len (sort of). The whole point of BSS is that the list goes on and the members of the collective have songs for you for days.
Hug of Thunder is a success for BSS, even if it doesn’t reach the heights of some of their earlier work. It reminds us why this band is special, and that it’s for the same reason that seeing all your friends at the bar, the reunion or around a picnic table in someone’s backyard is a lifting, shiny experience. This record is voices you know having conversations you’ve had before, just all a bit older and wiser. It reminds us that growing up isn’t so bad if you still remember to get together with friends now and then.
*Or Alpha Flight, I guess
Hug of Thunder is out now on Arts & Crafts / City Slang