Side-projects, collectives, supergroups; they’re not happy words. They’re style over substance, less than the sum of their parts, offshoots inevitably worse than whatever they’re shooting off from. Broken Social Scene don’t conform to these stereotypes for several reasons. For one thing they’ve disowned the supergroup tag, at pains to point out the ad hoc nature of their gestation and recording. (And come on, reality check: 'supergroup'? Sure, if you're in the 0.1 per cent of the population that has heard of Do Make Say Think, KC Accidental and Land Of Talk.) For another thing BSS are bloody great.
It’s arguable that the happy accident grandeur of 2002 breakthrough You Forgot It In People would have found its audience with or without its influential endorsements from Pitchfork et al. It’s harder to justify the tumult of records that those associated with BSS have released since that album, gladly harnessing cred through association. Have you heard Andrew Whiteman’s Apostle Of Hustle? Kevin Drew's Spirit If? Brendan Canning's Something For All Of Us? Not strong, not strong, and not strong respectively.
The amount of music hanging on the coattails of BSS means my expectations are perhaps unreasonably high for this, their fourth album proper. It’s been made by a pared down line-up of six, but there are guest turns from familiar faces including Leslie Feist, Stars’ Amy Millan and Evan Cranley and new producer Tortoise’s John McEntire. With a total cast list as long as a medium-sized West End musical, it’s no huge surprise that Forgiveness Rock Record is long, running for 14 tracks and one hour. Is it justified? Emphatically yes on the busiest, grandest songs.
Most of what’s here is familiar if slightly less chaotic than before, post rock with purpose. Hazy, lazy opener ‘World Sick’ evokes the creeping unease of pre-work Sunday nights, with a gentle drum-led build to an onslaught of glorious guitars. Portentous strings on 'Chase Scene' will be familiar to anyone that's ever heard Godspeed or Mogwai, but they're strapped to a song which conveys the breathless urgency of its title, rather than some tiresome ‘loud/quiet/loud/repeat for 12 minutes’ template. There’s something wonderfully Yacht-Rock about ‘Forced To Love’ with its shantyesque shared flute and guitar line bolstered by gorgeous harmonies.
'All To All’ is a dazzling showcase for touring vocalist Lisa Lobsinger and some way from anything we’ve heard from BSS before. It’s powered by a near-techno drum machine beat and a synth line that brings back recent memories of Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Overall BSS latch on to a wistful sunburnt mood and don't let it go, adding some slightly stoned-sounding lyrics to complete the picture. They're a summertime band and Forgiveness Rock Record is coming out at the ideal time. It also sounds wonderful, with clarity in every element but an overall sense of cohesiveness, a helluva achievement when there's so much happening.
Unfortunately after a superb opening half FRR goes on to explore sleepy fuckabout territory a little too often. Whistles and guitar doodles make ‘Highway Slipperjam' pleasant but a clear lull, while ‘Sweetest Kill’ and ‘Romance To The Grave’ sound under-written, and as 11th and 12th songs respectively make the closing section of the album drag. There’s still tons to admire sonically, but without memorable hooks the final quarter of FRR becomes something of a drab wash.
With a band this large, so many talents and instruments at their disposal, success is about nailing it. Albums become almost like profit and loss sheets, how much can be crammed in before it’s bloated? Which one of six guitar lines should be forefronted? Are any extraneous members abusing their expense accounts? Despite the aimlessness of much of FRR’s second half, nailing it is what BSS do brilliantly. There are enough moments of standout glory in the first half to sate any fan of this band, whatever part of their work they admire. There is also evidence in the newly demure production and triumph of ‘All To All’ that BSS will continue to evolve wonderfully. Even at their least focused, these songs bleed love, joy, and hope. It’s really difficult to hate on that, especially when it’s so sunny outside.
8Thom Gibbs's Score