Broken Social Scene are a rarity in contemporary music: They’re a supergroup that’s actually incredibly good. Sure, we’ve seen decent supergroups emerge in recent years, but none have been as influential as this Canadian collective. All members, including the brilliantly talented Kevin Drew and Leslie Feist, unite and combine creative endeavors in the most complementary way. BSS has had up to 19 people in its ensemble, and all contribute just enough without stepping on one another’s creativity and individuality. After a seven year hiatus, they return in top form.
Hug of Thunder comes as a surprise for fans who thought they would never hear another BSS album. Thankfully, those fears were put to rest earlier in May, though after a series of performances last year, the announcement wasn’t overwhelmingly surprising. Following their 2010 release Forgiveness Rock Record, Hug of Thunder is a warm and uplifting addition to darker times. And even though their political leader is less orange and more progressive than ours, even Canada could use some BSS-induced optimism that we all love them for.
“Sol Luna,” the album’s instrumental intro, reminds me a lot of “Capture the Flag,” the intro to their ambitious magnum opus You Forgot It in People. But whereas “Capture the Flag” fades gracefully into “KC Accidental,” immediately after “Sol Luna” we’re hit with a quick burst of energy with “Halfway Home.” And this sets up Hug of Thunder quite well, considering the album maintains a surging pace for most of its 52 minutes. “Halfway Home” in particular, however, stands out as being especially triumphant, a lot like a musical embodiment of a post-tennis match victory celebration: not in-your-face but still full of emotion.
Yet, Hug of Thunder avoids the melodrama and eccentricity that basically launched the more commercially successful Montreal-based Arcade Fire. Unlike the (dare I say overrated) aforementioned Quebecois band, these Ontarians rely on their own songwriting abilities to fill a track rather than grandiose, pretentious arrangements. Take “Protest Song,” a neatly structured pop song with plenty of musical complexities. It features a wall of sound with layers of guitars and effects, but never feels bombastic. Not actually a real protest song, its lyrics are cryptic yet powerful. She sings “You’re just the latest in a long list of lost loves, love,” harrowingly cutting lyrics that would curse any ex into months of gloom. “Protest Song” delivers what we’ve come to expect from BSS and is some of their finest work.
“Stay Happy” begins with a back-and-forth guitar and vocal arrangement that is completely fresh and different from anything they’ve produced in the past. A groovy bass and jumpy beat carries the rest of the track, and Ariel Engle’s lead vocals stand out as one of the album’s most impressive singular performances. It’s Feist, however, who delivers one of the best BSS songs to date, proving herself to be the ensemble’s most intriguing member. “Hug of Thunder” — her first appearance on a BSS album since 2005’s Broken Social Scene besides providing brief backing vocals on Forgiveness Rock Record — is nothing short of songwriting brilliance. Her lyrics evoke heart aching imagery of self doubt: “Survival by the soundtrack made of our short lives / Making sense of hologram ecology / I’ll be crying listening to Grace.”
Hug of Thunder, unlike Forgiveness Rock Record, doesn’t have any standout stinkers. “Skyline” begins like a bad early 2010s folk song, with overly delicate guitars, but eventually progresses into one of the album’s most heartfelt moments. “Please Take Me with You” is nearly forgettable, but its more hushed tone and relaxed pace is refreshing; it’s a much-needed pitstop for Hug of Thunder, calming down its rapid energy so it doesn’t burnout. “Mouth Guards of the Apocalypse” resembles the closer on their eponymous album, “It’s All Gonna Break.” It’s a bit messy, but intentionally so — BSS leaves us with an unsettling, bittersweet exit as the grand synths fade into silence.
With so many talented musicians, it seems impossible that BSS could ever release a lousy album. They’re more unified than a collection of famous Toronto-based musicians who decided to make a band as a publicity stunt due to failing personal careers, or something pathetic like that. Listening to some of the members’ solo projects, like Do Make Say Think, it’s astounding how they’ve managed to blend diverse individual styles into one overarching signature sound. Hug of Thunder is an amalgamation of brilliantly talented musicians, and will forever be one of BSS’s most inspired albums. Hopefully, they keep treating us with sporadic releases just like this.