There’s no real formula to explain how Broken Social Scene’s particular brand of alchemy works. Sometimes it really requires all twenty-plus contributors to squeeze as much life as possible out of their arena-ready indie rock epics. At other times, Broken Social Scene is reduced to Kevin Drew singing along with one guitar. In fact, that’s exactly the difference between the opening and closing song on their latest, Forgiveness Rock Record. The album starts with “World Sick,” a song so big that it requires repeated peaks to accomplish all that it intends to. Closer “Me and My Hand” (which, between this and “Love vs. Porn,” it’s amazing Kevin Drew ever gets anything done) is hinged on little more than Kevin Drew, but given the ostensible subject matter, the minimal approach is appropriate.
Basically, Broken Social Scene has enough members to be any kind of band they want to be from moment to moment, and throughout their decade long career, they’ve mostly used that flexibility well. There’s room for debate on a lot of albums from the last decade, but everyone seems to agree that nothing epitomized what indie rock could be quite as well as BSS’s You Forgot It In People. Their self-titled follow-up took the sprawl of You Forgot It In People to an almost comically irrational degree, but there were enough moments of perfectly realized bombast to compensate for the fact that Broken Social Scene often sounded like two hundred instruments playing at once. Forgiveness Rock Record scales back enough to alleviate that problem, but the band occasionally gets lost, meandering in half-realized shambolic compositions.
Of course, Broken Social Scene is a fairly reliable machine at this point. There are enough smart players and songwriters involved to keep Forgiveness Rock Record more than afloat through some shaky passages. Actually, despite several guitar and horn-heavy rave-ups, there’s an unhurried flow to this album. “World Sick” ensures the listener’s willingness to invest in the rest of the album. “Me and My Hand” brings this often-exhausting, nearly hour-long beast to a weary close with some self-congratulatory indulgence.
In between, you get a lot that hits, but you do have to put up some silly shit. “Chase Scene,” while brave in its ridiculousness, is still rather ridiculous. From its suspense-movie strings to the spaghetti-western strums that punctuate every measure, it’s a song idea that should have been nixed in its infancy. But Broken Social Scene is nothing if not a confident band, and that’s a quality you want in a band, and it occasionally means that bad ideas are given the room to swell. That same bravado allows them to give a song that is clearly based on half-assed, dicking around on the tour bus a title commensurate with that effort (“Highway Slipper Jam”).
And “Highway Slipper Jam” is plenty enjoyable. It’s not a highlight or anything, but it’s a low-key, transitional tune with modest aspirations. Broken Social Scene seems to make sure each album has a lot of stylistic stopping points, and “Highway Slipper Jam” is one of those beats that they have to hit. Forgiveness Rock Record may not improbably meld its disparate elements together the way You Forgot It In People did, but the freewheeling chaos of Broken Social Scene is part of the point. There are plenty of people in this band with enviable indie rock day jobs that have a rigid structural basis. Broken Social Scene is the place they go to when they want to write winding, disorganized protest songs about oil companies (“Texico Bitches”) or messy, blistering jams (“Water in Hell”), or heavy-handed, string-laden, cinematic instrumentals (“Meet Me In the Basement”). A stricter editor may have tightened Forgiveness Rock Record to a concise, perfect 40 to 45 minutes, but that just wouldn’t have been the unruly, impulsive Broken Social Scene we’ve come to know and love.