Broken Social Scene began in 1999 as a project between the Canadians Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning but the small band quickly expanded into a collective of 10 to 18 artists and performers. Obviously, the influences were many as testified by their 2001 debut album Feel Good Lost, which was for the most part an instrumental post-rock album with indie and ambient pop traces. The next two records catapulted Broken Social Scene into cult-like status: You Forgot It in People and the eponymous album delivered amazing songwriting, an impressive variety of instruments and sounds, all of that spiced by the obliging vocals of Feist, Drew and Canning. After the mediocre 2010’s Forgiveness Rock Record BSS were awaited for a good record in 2017, so Hug of Thunder was released the 7th of July through their own label Arts & Crafts.
Personally, my expectations were somewhat low, seven years after a disappointing work it seemed fair to predict a harmless album, with a couple of good songs but nothing more than that. Well, I was blown away even after the very first listen. The intro “Sol Luna” is quiet and cradling, a short ambient song that builds towards the end and shortly blacks out, leaving all the lights upon “Halfway Home”. The second track is uptempo, mimicking an urgent run between two lovers, and it’s brilliantly opened by an electric nyckelharpa lead chorus. The two main vocal performers, Drew and Ariel Engle, trade verses on dreaming and surviving, piling a strong crescendo that is highlighted by a shoegazing guitar. One of the strengths of Hug of Thunder is its sound variety, an aspect that is perfectly displayed on the third and fourth track: “Protest Song” is lead by a bassline and a quivering hammetone guitar while “Skyline” begins with an acoustic guitar, is then sustained by trombones and trumpets, and is finally closed by a lovely synth. Alongside this assortment of colours lays the thin “Stay Happy”, a straight bass and beats song, with slight inserts of clarinet; it also features tender lyrics written and performed by Feist about a broken heart that won’t give up her personality for an unfair love.
The hours the minutes the seconds I will be me
The central trio of tracks maybe represents the core of this work and nonetheless the most compelling moment. The grandiose “Vanity Pail Kids” reveals its striking nature once you read the lyrics or witness the video, directed by Kevin Drew: it narrates the struggles of us, common people obsessively chasing materialistic goals to the point of losing ourselves.
You wanna be the size of your love
You wanna be the size of your god
You wanna be the size of this trust
You must make sure that you steal it
The title track “Hug of Thunder” is basically more a track from Feist’s solo project than a BSS song, as she admitted in an interview. However the song is so well written and well produced that it totally fits inside this work and it even stands out as the best piece of the lotto. A drum machine, percussions, and a terrific bass give rhythm, and Feist’s sensitivity helps her write amazing lyrics, especially the refrain is pure poetry:
All along we’re gonna feel some numbness
Oxymoron of our lives
Getting fed up by that hunger
Supersize we found inside
They will know us by our numbers
Catching up and climbing life
Speaking like a hug of thunder
Lit up by the lights at dusk outside
“Towers and Masons”, almost an instrumental song, is extremely layered and presents amazing lead vocals by Brendan Canning.
The least compelling episodes are probably “Victim Lover” and “Gonna Get Better”: the first song fails because of bland lyrics and a predictable song structure that lacks interesting sections, furthermore the instruments that come out here and there, like the Rhodes piano or saxophone, could have been used better. The second is mostly uninspired and doesn’t seem to go anywhere.
The closing song “Mouth Guards of the Apocalypse” is another huge success and represents a virtual connection to the early BSS records: a long frightening intro is stupendously linked to the titanic first verse, while a constant crescendo never descends. The lyrics put into words the fears of any of us, like being killed by a terror attack or a nuclear war. Citing Kevin Drew himself “Mouth Guards of the Apocalypse is the stop it now song”.
I don’t wanna be scared
Or addicted to the dream
This fight is a ghost
Whose suicide was unseen
I’m done, I’m done
I wanna kill all my friends
I wanna grab them from the dark
And show them their end
The most positive aspect that Hug of Thunder presents to the listener is the coherence of the album structure, a slideshow of great songs notably put together, and the capacity of the many performers and songwriters to influence one another without trashing the paint. Ultimately the entire record treats adult themes with sensitivity and shows incredible variety, delivering a couple of unforgettable songs. This is the excellent summary of Broken Social Scene career and wouldn’t disfigure next to their best records.