Mooted comparisons with compatriots Arcade Fire are at once accurate and wide of the mark with Broken Social Scene’s eponymous third record. Canada just might be the coolest country on the musical atlas right now, and this loose Toronto collective of 17 credited members – plus guests – back up the theory that there must be something in the air.
But where Win Butler’s operation keeps the tunes tight and the hooks plenty, Broken Social Scene seem content to construct their sprawling tracks of several pieces of different songs – and styles – that flow and fade into each other. Any one track can run the gamut of musical arrangement from shaky, emotive vocals through to brass-parped finales, howls and drumming so infectious it should come with a health warning.
As albums go, this is not a quickie, nor is it easy to dip in and out of. Playing like an indie-orchestral stream of consciousness, it comes packaged with abstract drawings and scribbled liner notes. Likely at its best listened to end to end somewhere without distractions, it heads off into experimental directions more than it emphasises the collective’s pop sensibilities.
These are buried in the record to be found, however. Here and there, a bawled chorus or repeated phrase sticks. Ibi Dreams Of Pavement (A Better Day) is one of the tracks that just about stands alone, like Arcade Fire with a hangover. But this is not a record for anyone looking for melodies to sing along to.
You Forgot It In People was their previous outing, in 2002, since when their numbers have burgeoned. If all these people have some input to the creative process, it shows. In places it’s intense, in others comforting.
As the record progresses, interesting nuances here and out-of-focus musings there gradually become secondary to a need for something like a structure, a beginning and an end, a variation. All of these are to be found, but they’re not instantly obvious. Cerebral listening.
By the time It’s All Gonna Break finally peters out, something like 10 minutes after it started, to brass parps straight from Ravel’s Bolero (they’ve obviously been listening to fellow Canadian Rufus Wainwright‘s Oh What A World), the urge to hit the repeat button is simultaneously overwhelming and overwhelmed by the desire to have a break with some easy-on-the-ear pop.
But there’s a spare bits EP included with the record, making this essentially a double album. Let it never be said they don’t at least give volume for money. Included here is the quietly lovely All My Friends and Major Label Debut (Fast), the original, euphoric and far more memorable version of the slower main CD recording. Further on, Canada vs America repeats the refrain “Big guns are coming” ad nauseum. Maybe there was something ironic there that I missed, but the EP comes across like a collection of out-takes.
An album that just about defines the tradition of democratic, indie-orchestral music making, Broken Social Scene is extraordinary. Yet the niggling feeling remains – especially remembering those Arcade Fire comparisons – that an editor was needed, and while in its way fascinating, it’s not quite as great as it could be.