Uniquely disarming, Broken Social Scene’s hazy daydream-rock proves again that Canadians write more beautiful music than Americans do. Their long-awaited self-titled third album is an honest, complexly constructed success. Aside from a few production missteps, each track brims with experimentation and emotion. Cemented in the band’s beautiful signature mix of melody and distortion and enhanced by amplified vitality, “Broken Social Scene” is a lively and innovative experience for new listeners or old.
Broken Social Scene first achieved minor renown with their second album, 2002’s dreamy masterpiece “You Forgot It in People.” Mixed by producer David Newfeld into a controlled yet chaotic series of crescendos, the sophomore effort included expressive and sometimes astonishing contributions from all ten members.
On their latest album, Broken Social Scene hardly changes their successful formula: a plethora of disparate fragments of melody and distortion coalesce into songs of unbelievable power and undeniable emotion. The difference is that the ensemble has grown to 17 (and four guests), and their combined contributions constantly threaten to overwhelm.
Gone are the subdued instrumental soundscapes of their debut “Feel Good Lost” and the bossa nova-inspired intermissions of “You Forgot It in People.” Here, only two of the fourteen tracks serve as obvious interludes. On the low-key “Finish Your Collapse and Stay for Breakfast,” for example, Steve Reich-inspired pulses give way to narcotic guitar chords. In the production scribbles that serve as liner notes, Newfeld acknowledges the paucity of interludes as “a reminder not [to exclusively] be a rock band.”
The band takes heed. Despite uninterrupted energy, the album brilliantly navigates the noise. “7/4 (Shoreline),” the album’s first single, ascends to a pulsating mob of vocals, guitars, rhythms and horns for three minutes before dropping out, leaving only a beautiful reverberating absence. The bass drum thumps four times and the song surges back, working up to an earnest and vibrant climax.
“Handjobs for the Holidays” may be understated in its effusions, but it’s no less emotive. Subtle, sweet, and brass-tinged, its joy and rhythm inspire carefree head-bobbing. “Handjobs” and “7/4” best exemplify the band’s use of horns to alternately complement and overpower both the melody and rhythmic base.
This foundation is the closest Broken Social Scene has to a trademark sound — powerful yet unobtrusive bass lines steered by frantic percussion. That trope singularly energizes without dominating the wistfully experimental melodies. Even at its strongest, in the moodily lilting “Fire Eye’d Boy,” the bass line never steals the show.
The album’s centerpiece is the surprising “Windsurfing Nation,” a fiercely motivated jam colored with a hip-hop tinge. Featuring underrated, Mos Def-emulating Toronto rapper K-Os, the track’s adept vocals dance over a heartbeat tempo, as the instrumentation jumps in time. The taut backup vocals whisper and breathe sharply behind K-Os’ insistent delivery, and the urgency is cranked higher by persistent beeps, spurts of white noise and jagged guitar chords. The liner notes assert political motivations for the song, and the latent strength of conviction is incredibly obvious.
Unfortunately, the lyrics are just unintelligible enough to drown the message in the musical dynamics. In fact, lyrics blur throughout the album; vocal clarity is the first casualty of over-the-top composition. This emphasis on maximal inclusion ignores moments when sparser production would suit better. “Major Label Debut” is perhaps the worst offender in overproduction. Behind the birdlike squawking violin, the piano, vocals, and cymbal blend into an indistinguishable syrupy mass of high-pitched sounds. The lack of contrast engulfs the song’s emotion in a destructive sweetness, leaving the track listenable but unquestionably worse for the wear.
Similarly, the uninspired “Hotel” is rescued only by its brass arrangement. The warbled vocals sound like they were recorded underwater, and the notably conventional percussion accentuate the inappropriate production. Instead of providing the track’s lynchpin, the quiet Curtis Mayfield horns merely prevent it from devolving into a porn soundtrack recorded by Peter Gabriel.
Ultimately, these are minor quibbles. The album’s fervent closer, “It’s All Gonna Break” is not only as furious as any of the other tracks, but more finely-crafted as well. With sparse but compelling percussion, the ten-minute epic toys dazzlingly with tempo and distortion, builds into jubilant trumpeting horns, pulls back into a lazy vocal stretch, and then bursts forward into the almost classical finale. Its bombastic elation stunningly concludes this excellent album.
Moving but never melodramatic, distorted but never dissonant, “Broken Social Scene” roils with emotion and instrumentation. In short, the album dares to stand at an edge where so many artists have fallen before, yet navigates that narrow path with impeccable balance.