This Book Is Broken

Label Year is a feature in which I purchase all of the releases of a given record label for an entire calendar year and post on each one. I will also look at other significant releases from the label's past. 2011 will be devoted to Arts & Crafts out of Toronto. For more info, check out the introduction.

This feature of Label Year has mostly been devoted to the 2011 musical releases of Arts & Crafts, but it was always my hope to delve into at least a little of what came out in previous years. I'm finally getting around to that now, and I'm starting with a book. It's called This Book is Broken: A Broken Social Scene Story, and I consider it a must-read.

The book is essentially an oral history, as compiled and curated by author Stuart Berman. As he states immediately in his introduction, he is close friends with the band and primarily as a journalist, but also a musician, deeply immersed in the Toronto scene. Using his access and knowledge, he was able to conduct hundreds of interviews over several years and from them, he crafted a compelling narrative on not just the band, but the broader context of their community. The book is incredible aesthetically; just as it is to an extent a collage of words, it is also a scrapbook of photos, posters, artwork, setlists, and more.

Obviously, anyone who reads this will learn more about Broken Social Scene. It is almost necessary to have a guide like this because of how extensive and fluid the band's membership is. I am very into learning the chronology and the details of who contributed in what way, so I really liked this. It's always so cool to me to see how disparate threads, ranging from small-scale personal decisions, to broad larger-scale factors get woven together into the tapestry of something new. Everything is in some ways a "perfect storm."

I was particularly interested in the origin stories: who met whom, when, and so forth. For instance, Brendan Canning, Andrew Whiteman, and Leslie Feist all knew each other from early bands. Kevin Drew, Emily Haines, and Amy Millan (and other musicians and writers) all met at an arts high school in the Toronto area. And as one might expect, relationships are a big part of it. Like how Kevin and Emily originally dated before Emily's more prominent relationship with Metric co-founder James Shaw. With such a large group of men and women in their teens, 20s, and 30s, dating, marriage, and fights are inevitable, but the book never devolves into a salacious, gossipy tell-all.

I liked the stories about the members coming together in different combinations to record music (like BSS precursor, KC Accidental of Kevin Drew and Charles Spearin). It was interesting to learn more about David Newfield's production style and details of the process and decisions that went into developing the band's sound, how songs were written, and how albums were put togther. For instance, I always have been confused why the fast version of "Major Label Debut" was relegated to a bonus EP in favor of the slowed-down version. Not that the slow one is bad, but the fast one is just so amazing. I learned from the book this was decided because Kevin Drew didn't want the band to have a huge hit that reductively defined them, which makes a lot of sense.

There are accounts of early shows – which would have been so cool to be at! – and also the story of how Arts & Crafts as a label was born. And since Broken Social Scene is also inextricably tied to the surrounding Toronto scene, I really enjoyed gaining a sense of that community and the band's place in it. They are quite prominent, to be sure, but it would be a mistake to think that there was nothing else beyond BSS or even A&C. All of this has a very romantic, exciting feel to me: how all of these interesting, creative people were brought together through all manner of connections and just developed a lot of great art, a communal outlook that raised everyone else within it, and sustained that growth and energy to export the Toronto scene to the world.

I love stuff like this. Whether it is music or not, I am incredibly fascinated by group dynamics and the notion of how people connect and can form into something greater than the sum of their parts. That's why Broken Social Scene is a particularly resonant band to me: all bands to some extent embody this ideal by their very nature, but none of them have actually made it an end in and of itself as their own operational principle like BSS has. Who doesn't have the fantasy of figuring out a way to do something awesome and successful and fun with all of their close friends, while still allowing for other pursuits? Who doesn't want to be part of a scene where there's always something happening, where cross-pollination of ideas comes easily, where you make each other better and become your ideal self?

Broken Social Scene is a band, more than any other in my life to this point (and probably always will be), that so vividly captures both how life is and how it should be. Their early stages and rise especially are the embodiment of an aspirational element I absolutely believe in, as described above. The later stages of how difficult it is to sustain are reflective of how life is: we have wonderful people come into our lives, and many of them also leave our lives, or at least, take on different, diminshed roles. Things change, people move on. Broken Social Scene has always straddled that line of gaining the best from a huge, diverse group's contributions and unique energy, which by its very nature is impossible to maintain forever. I think that's why the band has such a strong impact, why their music is so emotional, and why people connect with them so deeply.

Reading this and learning how close BSS was to breaking up in the past made me a lot more wary from signals I got when I saw them peform a few weeks ago. I kind of thought it was the priming effect of the book, but articles that have come out since make it clear this might really be it. In some ways, the band can never really break up – the members will always be active for one thing (and I know some of them will be working together in some capacity) and they kind of are ALWAYS broken up. But the point is, I now have a better sense of why it would happen from understanding their history and a somehow greater appreciation – as it was already pretty high – for what they did accomplish.

All of this is why I love This Book Is Broken. Stuart Berman has written a wonderful book that beautifully captures the essence of Broken Social and its surrounding context. I am inducting this to the Shrine as a great piece of rock and roll literature, but no matter the subject, I think everyone should read this. You can buy it from GalleryAC or on Amazon.

Previously on Label Year: