This is a foreword to an e-book collection of short stories published by House of Anansi and inspired by songs from the Broken Social Scene album You Forgot It in People. House of Anansi ran a story contest to mark the 10th anniversary of the album's label, Arts & Crafts. The winners will be announced Thursday evening in Toronto at a party launching the book.
It’s fitting to celebrate Broken Social Scene with a book of stories. It is a storybook band, in ways that seem both romantic (from the outside) and narratively complex. To oversimplify, you could say many of its members (Brendan Canning, Andrew Whiteman, Justin Peroff, Leslie Feist, Amy Millan, Emily Haines, Jason Collett, Charles Spearin and more) had been caught in their own cycles of false starts and disappointed hopes on the Toronto music scene until they met a charismatic stranger (Kevin Drew) and everything began to change, beginning an epic travelogue full of feuds and love affairs, not to mention repeated false endings. (Drew likes every so often to announce the band’s imminent demise.) Each of its triumphs has led to deeper dilemmas and, rather than cheap epiphanies, what it mainly offers is a sense of a fully inhabited reality that, whatever its flaws, seems almost to have always been there, and to linger on after its final syllables or drumbeats.
With that feeling of inevitability, it’s odd to listen back today to You Forgot It in People, officially the second BSS album but existentially the first, since it introduced most of the cast of characters. The music in my memory has been overshadowed by what it came to mean. Alongside significant records by bands such as The New Pornographers, The Hidden Cameras, Royal City and others, You Forgot It in People told the world a new story about Canadian music. It was no longer to be known for great eccentric poets like Leonard Cohen or Joni Mitchell on one side and mainstream artists a bit goofier than their American counterparts on the other. In the new century, Canadians would set the template for the rock band as a hip, crowded artistic co-operative in which the busy pursuit of sound and meaning by each individual member would add up to a grand collective racket of yearning intelligence and energy.
There’s an implicit politics to that collectivism, but it was also an instinctive, pragmatic and even somewhat sentimental alternative to the hopeless state of the Canadian music industry: If getting signed by a major label was both improbable and a career trap, another way to accomplish things might be to pool resources. The commercial formula is that bands need an obvious point of focus and personality, but if those ambitions become void, it seems natural to play with as many of your friends as possible. And that feeling might have been especially strong in the years of 9/11 and the second Iraq war – a quest for supportive community in frightening times, while belligerent governments were doing exactly the opposite.
You Forgot It in People is also remembered as one of the first albums that truly broke on the Internet, pulled out of the slush pile and given a breathless review by Pitchfork.com editor Ryan Schreiber in February, 2003 – a moment that arguably did as much to establish Pitchfork for years to come as indie music’s online tastemaker as to spread the BSS gospel.
In fact, one could go a step further and say that the band’s whole identity as a loosely linked, often geographically dispersed creative affinity group prefigured social media such as Facebook and YouTube, which turn our scattered personal networks into a primary source of homemade entertainment.
All of which is to say that You Forgot It in People looks in retrospect like a doorway to everything independent music was about to become. So it’s a bit startling, sitting down and listening again, to hear plainly that it had not actually become that yet. A more recent BSS album such as Forgiveness Rock Record has the sound of expansion and epic. But You Forgot It in People is much more wounded and vulnerable – it has the crackle of fresh exploration, but also the fragility of people trying to work out what happened in the era that had just passed. It’s layered with remnants of the 1990s alt-rock on which most of the group had been weaned, and strains to hold on to what was cool about that, yet to transcend the adolescent solipsism and resentment that too often hemmed it in.
It sounds now like a musical coming-of-age story, the kind in which all the detritus a young person becomes aware is strewn around them has to be stuck and soldered together as a provisional identity, and the tension is whether it will hold or crack. You Forgot It in People is an anthology of these attempts, rather like this book’s collection of efforts by young writers to reach for their viewpoints on the world as it is or could be. The genius of the name Broken Social Scene is that it admits, even proudly asserts, that the mess is foundational and unfixable – that maybe the only prospect for sustaining anything is to know it always was a wreck and love it that way.
Just as happens in one of the stories here when people start inexplicably transforming into fish, literature and music both help us question whether the transmutations our eras put us through are really horrors or miracles. I know I’m asking myself that in 2013. Returning to You Forgot It in People reminds me how we asked it in 2003, in ways well worth remembering.
Carl Wilson is a Globe and Mail editor and the author of Let’s Talk About Love, a book about class, taste and Celine Dion in the 33 1/3 Series (Bloomsbury).
Note to readers: This story has been modified to reflect the following correction and clarification: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the music label Arts & Crafts organized a short story contest to mark the label's 10th anniversary. In fact, the contest was organized by House of Anansi. As well, the story did not make clear that the a new e-book collection of short stories was published by Anansi.