The folks in Broken Social Scene are real aces when it comes to kicking off a record. The one-two punch of “Capture the Flag” and “KC Accidental” that cracks open 2002’s You Forgot It in People, and the slinky slow-build of “Our Faces Split the Coast in Half” from 2005’s Broken Social Scene are among my favorite album leadoffs of all time. On Forgiveness Rock Record, the collective’s first proper album in five years, its first track “World Sick” proudly carries on the BSS tradition of masterful opening gestures. It’s an absolutely gargantuan production that’s driven by a swinging, tom-heavy drum stomp, featuring monumental choruses awash in melodious showers of innumerable guitars. Fittingly, it rocks, and the track’s skittering post-climax comedown sets an excellent stage for the record that follows.
Even from these opening moments, though, it’s clear that the Broken Social Scene on Forgiveness Rock Record isn’t the same Broken Social Scene of outings prior (and, after all this time, how could it be?). At almost seven minutes, “World Sick” is the album’s longest track, and yet it feels more economical and direct than almost anything else from their back catalog. This tidiness is largely attributable to their decision to part ways with longtime producer and sometimes group member David Newfeld, whose relatively raw aesthetic and impeccably orchestrated sonic madness became inextricably linked with the BSS sound over their last two full-lengths. This time around, they chose to work with John McEntire (Tortoise, The Sea and Cake), and together they’ve pursued a clarity on Forgiveness Rock Record that marks the album’s greatest aesthetic departure. It’s not that the production aesthetic is necessarily minimal — this is still a BSS record, after all, and there are plenty of sounds to go around — but all of the parts are very keenly isolated, allowing more individual breathing room and less competition for space.
It’s a choice that, more often than not, serves the material on the album rather well. The writing and arrangement on most of the tracks tend toward a more linear, traditionally song-oriented approach, and McEntire fittingly draws the vocals, drums, and individual guitar leads more clearly into focus. The more laid-back tracks — the gorgeous “All to All,” the haunting “Sweetest Kill,” the blissful jog of “Sentimental X’s” — are particularly well-handled. However, those mixing choices do come at some cost. Where on previous albums Newfeld managed to brilliantly capture the feeling of a large group of musicians all coming together and really pushing their songs to the highest, panel-rattling limits of control, things can feel a little sterile and isolated here. Rockers like “World Sick,” “Forced to Love,” and “Meet Me in the Basement” particularly suffer, despite sounding bigger than ever. With everything much more audibly managed and the threat of implosion safely defused, the band sounds a little too comfortable to burn quite as white-hot.
There’s definitely something to be said for comfort, though. For a group that’s apparently been plagued by its fair share of interpersonal drama, BSS sound particularly at ease on Forgiveness Rock Record. They may have traded in a certain sort of urgency and sprawl, but there’s a certitude to the whole affair that makes the album go down easy. You can almost hear them settling in, getting cozy, and just plain having fun. Moments like the campy, noir head-scratcher “Chase Scene,” the suave-rock of the horn-heavy “Art House Director,” or the country-groove breakdown in the middle of late-inning guitar jam “Water in Hell” get downright playful and goofy. It’s a tenuous proposition for a band to show those kinds of hands these days, and I have to admit that the first few times I heard them I got the same sort of feeling you might get when you realize your new romantic interest snores or has a really funny laugh or something. Indeed, I’m sure this album will have detractors who might claim the Broken Social Scene gang may have lost a few marbles (some TMTers among them). But it’s hard to stay cynical in the face of so much good will and in the face of pretty darn good tunes.