Broken Social Scene
Forgiveness Rock Record
(Arts & Crafts; 2010)
By Calum Marsh | 16 May 2010
That’s a contentious little rating perched up above this text, the lowest this record has received from a professional criticism outlet by Metacritic’s count, and so let’s just acknowledge upfront that the position I’m defending in this review is an unpopular one. This is a well-liked album. There’s a good chance that you like it. Which is fine, except that it will be difficult for you to accept my central thesis, which I might as well declare now: Forgiveness Rock Record is a bad U2 album.
This means a couple of different things: it means that Forgiveness Rock Record does not sound like any particular U2 album, even the ones that are bad; it means, yes, that Kevin Drew often writes and plays and sings like Bono, and that here the impression is uncanny and exhaustive; and it means, most significantly, that if Forgiveness Rock Record were an album by U2 we wouldn’t be having this discussion, because the general critical consensus would be that it’s bad.
If you like Forgiveness Rock Record you won’t like this assessment because it implies that you are lying about something. It implies that you like a record because it’s by Broken Social Scene, as opposed to liking a record that just happens to be by Broken Social Scene. I don’t think anybody is lying about this record, exactly, but I do think people are being misled by it, and that its essential Broken Social Sceneness has a lot to with all the adoration and fanfare. Because Broken Social Scene are one of those subcultural sensations whose cultivated mythology has come to stand in for the band itself, which is also true of U2 except the two cases are inverted: U2, despite being just about the most popular band in the world, are regarded with not just distaste but outright revulsion; people hate this band. But what they hate isn’t any particular song or album, because the disdain precedes the product—or, rather, the disdain is directed toward a different product, the U2 product at large, in the abstract. As with pop stars on the scale of Lady Gaga, what’s being sold gets split into two distinct and only casually related things: on the one hand you’ve got music, which could be anybody’s, and on the other hand you have the icon, which is bigger than the stuff that’s on your iPod. The problem is conflation: people hate U2 which entails hating their music—for a band whose career spans thirty years and twelve studio albums, the question of what music one hates gets lost in the white noise of vague hostility or dismissal.
The same thing happens with Broken Social Scene, but to their advantage. Over the course of the eight years since You Forgot It In People (2002), a whole sense of Broken Social Scene as a ramshackle art-house collective—the bevy of semi-famous contributors with since-successful solo careers, inter-band relationships, and a bunch of other stuff I wouldn’t think people would actually care about except that there’s literally a book on the subject, Stuart Berman’s This Book Is Broken—has emerged and, sigh, captured the imaginations of the indie public. And so when Forgiveness Rock Record comes out we get all sorts of contextual detritus clogging hype pieces and record reviews, including one by Pitchfork’s Ryan Dombal, who helpfully explains that Broken Social Scene’s “story is filled with scurrilous encounters, backstabbings, and break-ups on par with most ’70s arena-rockers,” reminding us that “they’ve crashed and rebuilt so many times that it’s nearly impossible to keep track of who was where at any given moment.” Which isn’t even really accurate, unless Dombal is privy to a lot of private dissolutions and comebacks that never got much press, because even if you factor in public discussion of a “hiatus” here or a “temporary vacation” there, the fact remains that since 2005 Broken Social Scene have released two major studio albums, two “side-project” records released under the “Broken Social Scene Presents” label (which ended up featuring pretty much the entire crew anyway), and have toured the globe and their home country often enough that I’ve seen them live something like seven times. If with Broken Social Scene you ever find it “impossible to keep track of who was where at any given moment,” I suggest you consult a listing of their tour dates—they’re bound to be headlining a summer festival near you.
I understand the appeal of a compelling backstory. “Art from adversity” or whatever, right? And there are plenty of relevant examples of bands whose personal relationships with one another greatly affected the outcome of a given record. But to paraphrase our own Mark Abraham, Forgiveness Rock Record isn’t Rumours (1977), and there’s no reasonable way to take whatever backstory happens to flesh out the band’s press release—Feist got moderately popular and a couple of people had sex, or something—and position it as a kind of thematic core for this album. Bringing a twenty-member band together to record an album isn’t easy, sure, but it’s hardly torture. Forgiveness Rock Record may be borne from inconvenience but it isn’t borne from turmoil. Reading it that way is just an easy way in.
All of this misleading history and “album-defining” context, what we might call the Great Mythology of Broken Social Scene, has only one real function: it lends Forgiveness Rock Record a sense of gravity that it doesn’t really carry on its own, making it not just a Great Album but an Important one. One thing Great Band mythologies do is perpetuate themselves—if you can invent a convenient backstory for a band you can certainly make it seem like the band was always leading toward their new album. And so Broken Social Scene (2005), an inflated mess that itself was critically lauded (as well as conveniently contextualized as bravely following its critically heralded predecessor; it got the “follow-up to an accepted masterpiece” treatment [see Arcade Fire, the Strokes, and Interpol, in their time]), gets re-contextualized as the disappointing album that allows Forgiveness Rock Record to be their return to form.
In the end it’s just more convenient covering up for the fact that Forgiveness Rock Record doesn’t provide anything interesting to talk about in and of itself. Its actual thematic talking points, as far as I can tell, tend toward political pedantry, songs like “World Sick” and “Texico Bitches” stuffed with reductive Liberal platitudes and flat sloganeering. Kevin Drew has always been the Michael Moore of indie rock, vilifying his political enemies rather than intelligently engaging them, but given the broadness of his message—remember the inside cover of their last album, with its graffiti-scrawl of “WE HATE YOUR HATE”?—isn’t it curious that critics seem, by and large, to avoid the subject altogether? Nobody, Broken Social Scene supporters included, seems bothered to engage with whatever Drew and his friends are trying to sell.
“I was a little worried to come out of the gate with ‘World Sick,’ lyrically,” Drew told Pitchfork in a recent interview. “But in the end it was great because it sounded like us and and people fuckin’ embraced it.” Well, I’m not surprised: nobody much cares what Broken Social Scene songs are saying. What’s more important, I guess, is that these songs are made by a large group of arty intellectuals, all of whom have enough of a say in songwriting and instrumentation that nothing gets left out. In many ways “World Sick” was the ideal song for the band to come out of the gate with: it does, as Drew says, sound like them, which is to say that it sounds like the product of a band that still equates more with better. I’ve heard Broken Social Scene songs described as “pop-oriented,” but the comparison couldn’t be less accurate. Pop is lean, precise; with mainstream pop particularly, it has to be because so much money is at stake. Pop is also highly calculated: every sound is in place to be maximally appealing, infectious, and gratifying. There is nothing precise, by contrast, with “World Sick”; it contains a slender, satisfying pop core, but that core has been engulfed by the indulgences of musicians who continue to prove themselves unable to let a good idea breathe. And these guys used to make sorts of pop songs, songs like “Cause = Time” and “Almost Crimes.” Had Broken Social Scene recorded those songs in 2010 they’d be drowned in a thick soup of unidentifiable instrumentation, layer upon layer of guitar and synth and whatever-the-fuck else rendering the simplicity of the original ideas unrecognizable.
“It’s so great listening to a record that you love,” Drew said in the same interview, “because of the parts that your friends are playing.” This, I suspect, is the core of the problem: as close friends, how can the members of Broken Social Scene deny one another their time to shine? These songs feel crowded because the studio was; they didn’t need so much of everything but they had everything, and you can’t expect such a broad collective to sound singular. But would it be unreasonable to ask a group, even one so populous, to bring in a person without a personal investment in the product to recommend that certain elements be toned down or thrown away entirely? Bono’s rep paints him as something of an egomaniac but you know that Brian Eno gets some say in the editing stages—you can throw on any one of their collaborations and hear it in the end results. If you want a further comparison, try “No Line On the Horizon,” the title track from last year’s Eno-produced album. That song is what “World Sick” could have been had Broken Social Scene not insisted on inflation and indulgence so stubbornly. “No Line” feels big but direct and focused: it has momentum and doesn’t bore because of it. Broken Social Scene get away recording a boring, sub-U2 song because we know them to have twenty members, know those twenty members to be creative and talented and musically competent, and so defer to the best intentions of the collective. U2 should be so lucky.