When he looks at the state of the world today, Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew sees a crumbling society that keeps getting worse. In the seven years since the Toronto indie-rock collective’s last album, the trajectory of our national discourse would seem to support Drew’s cynical worldview. And yet, rather than trot out dirges about society’s ruin or offer direct socio-political commentary, the band’s long-awaited Hug of Thunder simply drives home the message that we must weather the storm of a fracturing, social media-obsessed culture by forging and preserving meaningful human connections.
A thematic focus on maintaining relationships is particularly apt, as Hug of Thunder reunites all 15 original band members, especially notable given that 2010’s Forgiveness Rock Record featured a far sparser lineup. Broken Social Scene has always favored robust vocal harmonies, discordant swells, and baroque melodies, but compared to their past efforts, there’s less emphasis on controlled chaos here. Instead, the album’s intensity ebbs and flows as some tracks expand to near-cacophony (“Halfway Home”) while others contract into gentler introspection (“Please Take Me with You”).
Even as the theme of survival in an increasingly toxic culture surfaces throughout Hug of Thunder, Broken Social Scene argues that continuous outrage isn’t sustainable, that we’re better off tuning out all the noise. The upbeat, Emily Haines-led “Protest Song” admits to the futility of adding yet another entry to a long line of resistance anthems before advocating that in the face of adversity, whether interpersonal or global in scale, it’s important to stand firm and just “take it like you’re strong.”
This passive approach leads to a twisted type of hopefulness on the breezy “Gonna Get Better,” as newcomer Ariel Engle offers the consolation that conditions are bound to improve “because they can’t get worse.” On the album’s slow, rumbling title track, Leslie Feist, who was notably absent from Forgiveness Rock Record, looks back at her life and its meaningful relationships while avoiding the pitfalls of nostalgia. Hug of Thunder thrives in these quieter moments, which depart from band’s established sound in order to play to specific vocalists’ strengths.
The album’s more discordant and propulsive tracks are more of a mixed bag. Through the shifting rhythms and fuzzed-out effects of “Mouth Guards of the Apocalypse,” Drew sings that he’d rather “kill all his friends” than let the latest outrage on social media or fear-mongering of the 24-hour news cycle drag those close to him down, while the abrasive and equally simplistic “Vanity Pail Kids” is content to echo the well-worn sentiment that narcissistic, selfie-obsessed millennials need to get off their damn phones.
Railing against modern technology and its myriad diversions may ultimately be a lost cause, but Broken Social Scene still seeks to remind us that there’s no substitute for genuine human interaction. Hug of Thunder doesn’t promise catharsis or stoke up righteous anger, but instead offers both dark clouds and silver linings through the band’s unique juxtaposition of anxiety and hope.