Some bands are known only for their sprawl and excess, even if they might have some great music to go along with it. Detractors would say “sprawl and excess” are the only reason why people like prog rock bands of the 70s, but even today, bands like Sunset Rubdown and The Fiery Furnaces are alternately loved and loathed for stepping outside of the three minute pop song format. The big difference between those bands and the sprawl and excess of Broken Social Scene is that there is a clear “leader” or two in those bands, someone to make the call to add or subtract this or that element. So when people say they think Sunset Rubdown is elitist hipster wank, they can point to Spencer Krug as a target for their bile. Broken Social Scene ostensibly have Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning, yet Forgiveness Rock Record gives the impression that no one was willing or felt it necessary to pare down this or that song, or remove a few instruments or voices here or there. Restraint and tight running times have never been in this band's playbook, but with sub-par songs and an overstuffed-in-a-bad-way production from John McEntire, it's tough to know where to assign blame.
Assuming we were 'assigning blame' and not reviewing their album, I mean.
As a huge fan of Broken Social Scene's self-titled album, I defend it on the basis of how excellent it really turns out to be when listened to on headphones and with some patience. Yet a big part of its lasting appeal to me is its frequently great songs that aren't always obvious pop tunes. 'Ibi Dreams Of Pavement (A Better Day)', 'Major Label Debut', and the euphoric rush of 'Superconnected' are all memorable songs, to say nothing of the more immediate tracks 'Fire Eye'd Boy' and '7/4 (Shoreline).' Nothing on Forgiveness Rock Record has anywhere near the catchiness or memorability of these songs, relying on lazy, emptily repeated lyrics as hooks, as on 'Texico Bitches' or the increasingly cliched use of arbitrary swearing with the “ungrateful little motherfuck” line from 'Ungrateful Little Father.'
It doesn't help that all of the album's best material is used up in its first half, so that by the time the charming Sam Prekop of The Sea And Cake shows up on 'Romance To The Grave', it's hard to care, since we've already sat through 50 minutes of the album, not to mention wasted two minutes of this song's run time on instrumental wankery. Worse yet, there is almost no sense of flow or pacing to Forgiveness Rock Record to help alleviate these problems. It may begin very strongly with 'World Sick', but it meanders from there with no discernible pattern or seemingly any care given to what tracks will follow what. The whole thing sounds like the middle of an album with no true peaks or valleys to help give the listener the sense of a journey.
If you really think about it, Broken Social Scene were never a pop band. Their members and collaborators simply come from too many backgrounds to allow this, doubly so when their albums stretch past the hour mark and some of their best songs, like 'Lover's Spit' and 'Almost Crimes', are, respectively, a slow moving ballad and a rocker with a somewhat skronky sax solo. But Forgiveness Rock Record contains their least engaging set of songs ever, often sounding like an indie rock band collaborating with a post-rock collective and trying to marry those different approaches. Which is sort of what this band was and is, I suppose, but it always worked until now. Justin Vernon's collaboration with Collections Of Colonies Of Bees under the moniker Volcano Choir left me with a similar feeling, since it more or less sounds like “the dude from Bon Iver's vocals added into a post-rock group's songs” instead of anything that felt like a natural extension or melding of those disparate sounds. Broken Social Scene used to pull this off, using some post-rock elements in novel, interesting ways. What changed? Well, now the songs sound like an indie rock band and post-rock collective all playing at the same time, with no one there to tell this or that person, “hey, man, you can sit this one out.”
Weak songwriting aside, the huge problems with Forgiveness Rock Record are the suffocating production and the added emphasis on instrumental sections. John McEntire is a great producer in many cases—he helmed one of Stereolab's best, after all—but his shtick isn't helping bands pare down their song lengths and layers of sound. Broken Social Scene was already pretty stuffed and complex when it came to layers of sound but it supported, rather than made up for, a clutch of good-to-great songs. Here, the layers either get in the way of hooks/melodies (there are three separate sets of vocals going on 'Romance To The Grave' alone, not to count the percussion, piano, strings, bass, guitars, keyboards, etc) or make songs drag on pointlessly. For instance, what could have been one of the album's best songs, 'Ungrateful Little Father', is satisfactorily concluded around the 3:30 mark, yet there's three more minutes of aimless instrumental screwing around to sit through.
But hey, didn't I just say this isn't a pop album, and this isn't a pop band? Yes, but this also doesn't work as experimental music or even instrumental music. I kept thinking of Miles Davis's Bitches Brew while listening to this album. There was another set of music that had many musicians and layers of sound on it; even if you didn't know the list of personnel and instruments going in, if you concentrated hard enough, you could pick out, say, an electric and acoustic bassist, or two drummers and a percussionist. But the album is a deftly produced and enjoyable work of genius because Miles Davis and Teo Marcero had a strong overall vision of what they wanted the album to sound like, never worrying about stepping on anyone's toes by splicing various takes of a song together or carefully guiding the players to solo or drop back for awhile. There is no such discipline on Forgiveness Rock Record, and that's a shame. Rather than suffer for being too selfish and stingy with parts, the sheer selflessness of this album means that too many people are on each track doing things that serve neither the songs nor the efficacy of the music. True, this maximal sound is sometimes breathtaking and a visceral rush. But, to paraphrase the famous quote, it is mostly sound and fury that signifies nothing. It's as if Broken Social Scene tried to have their cake and eat it too: they wanted to have some hooks and songs to pull people in, but they also wanted to have tons of layers of sound and lots of instrumental sections. It's possible a band could balance both, but Broken Social Scene aren't that band, at least on this album.
It's a shame to see such an exciting and interesting band fall prey to their worst tendencies, but...here we are. There may be some good moments here and there, but they're utterly lost in a miasma of carelessly piled layers of sound and unnecessarily sprawling songs. Not all bands need a strong leader or two to help craft their music into its best possible shape, as in the case of, say, Godspeed! You Black Emperor. But when a band's albums have a 'members and collaborators' list that reaches toward the two dozen mark, it's a necessity. It would've helped if the songs were anywhere near as good or consistent as their last two albums (no, I'm not counting the “solo” releases by Kevin Drew And Brendan Canning), or if they had worked with a producer who forced them to get rid of half the instruments and voices going on during most of the songs. But as it stands, Forgiveness Rock Record is a frustrating, unrewarding mess of an album, and one of the greatest disappointments I've ever had. Musically speaking.