'Mess is more' on new Broken Social Scene album
'Forgiveness Rock Record' challenging, diluted
"Forgiveness Rock Record," Canadian ensemble Broken Social Scene’s first full-fledged record in five years, has been eagerly anticipated for so long that the sweetness of its release threatened to turn sour.
Backlash happens much faster than it once did, as flavor-of-the-moment bands like The Strokes found out. But the toxins that build up between releases become more potent when the wait is longer. Whether justified or not, the expectation is that the time off – even if it was spent "on" in other pursuits – will result in a better finished product.
As any artist will tell you, though, the best works are often those that come quickly, in a rush of inspiration. And when a group is as large and dispersed as Broken Social Scene is, it can be almost impossible to get all the members on the same page for that sort of sustained collaboration.
On their last album, "Broken Social Scene," co-founders Kevin Shields and Brendan Canning managed to turn necessity into a virtue. That not-quite-double album was a rather inscrutable affair, giving away with odd mixing and loose construction what it proffered in radio-friendly melodies.
The album was difficult, perverse even. But listeners who gave the record a chance to grow on them found that its fragmentary, imperfectly realized nature – at times it sounded like a collection of half-finished studio demos – was ultimately the source of its appeal.
That was an impressive trick, to be sure, but not the sort to pull off twice in row. The task that faced Broken Social Scene while they were making "Forgiveness Rock Record" was delicate. It needed to be worthwhile for fans of their previous album, as well as those who loved 2002’s "You Forgot It In People" but found its successor disappointingly diffuse.
The record had to be accessible to new listeners, too, since much of the new album’s target market, the sort of arty twenty-somethings who used to listen to college radio, probably weren’t old enough five years ago to appreciate the band’s ramshackle aesthetic.
The verdict? It’s important not to rush to judgment, particularly considering how long it took many people to assimilate Broken Social Scene. But a week with "Forgiveness Rock Record" suggests that it will eventually sound like its predecessor on anti-depressants. The lows are filled in with putty, but the highs get sanded off in the process.
Not that this is a bad thing. "Forgiveness Rock Record" pushes its muted quality so far that it starts to feel like an aesthetic statement. Something is so palpably missing that absence starts to dominate songs from the music’s negative space.
Part of the reason for this effect lies in the album’s principal innovation, a shift away from guitars and towards the keyboard-heavy sound of the early 1980s. Despite the presence of lovely vocals, songs like "All in All" and "Sweetest Kill" have a mutilated quality, as if information were being robotically withheld: like a drive in a sports car in Japan, where no matter how much horsepower you have, the engine shuts off at 112 miles per hour.
On "Forgiveness Rock Record’s" louder, faster songs, like "Meet Me in the Basement" and "Texico Biches," this electronic-centered approach also leads to considerable distortion. At times, the effect is so muddy that listeners might think there’s something wrong with their speakers or headphones. But it’s all part of the recording and, what is more, no accident.
Of all the artists to which Broken Social have pledged allegiance, New Order gets the most nods here. Not the New Order of dance 12" singles like "Blue Monday," but of the album "Brotherhood," whose maxed-out levels and murky underpinnings are reproduced on "Forgiveness Rock Record" with stunning accuracy.
Yet because Broken Social Scene also sports an impressive array of singers – including Leslie Feist, Metric’s Emily Haines and Stars’ Amy Millan – the overall effect is different from the early-80s revivalism that has prevailed among many alternative rock bands in the Pitchfork era. They don’t want to sound like a band so much as communicate what sounds they like.
And too, how they like them: through a wall, a sheet of crumpled paper, a foot of water. The promotional clip for Kevin Shields’ 2007 solo album "Spirit If. . ." – most Broken Social Scene members contributed to the project – showed him eating a bowl of cereal to a soundtrack of lovers’ cries mixing with the crunch and slurp, as if to illustrate the band’s conviction that access to what we care about most is often restricted.
If clarity is your fetish, this band is sure to turn you off. But those who have learned to hear noise as the sexy negligee for the body of a song, Broken Social Scene will provide plenty of pleasure even if – or perhaps because – it is held back.
This approach probably won’t win the band many new fans. And there is, admittedly, something disappointing about their reluctance to go for broke. Still, "Forgiveness Rock Record’s" sins are easy to forgive, particularly when repeated listening starts to make each song’s ornamental flourishes – this is music that excels in the details even when they don’t add up to anything cohesive – start to emerge from the mix.
Shoring up a rather sparse back catalog, especially for a band that has been around this long, "Forgiveness Rock Record" confirms that Broken Social Scene are the worthy inheritors of a tradition descended from The Velvet Underground, David Bowie and Pavement in which mess is more.
Charlie Bertsch has been based in Tucson since 2000. He has written about music, film and books for a variety of publications, including The Oxford American, Zeek, Tikkun, Phoenix New Times and the pioneering internet publication Bad Subjects: Political Education For Everyday Life, which he helped to found back in 1992. He welcomes your feedback.