The Legacy of Trish Keenan: America’s Boy

I don’t remember the exact year I discovered Broadcast, but it was somewhere in 2008 or 2009. Prior to then, it’s hard to overstate how little I knew or cared about music. I didn’t really listen to it growing up and partially defined myself by not caring about this trifling art form that other people loved. Broadcast were one of the first bands to prove how wrong and dumb I was. For me, they occupy a space that for most people is taken by classic bands like The Beatles — the band I heard when I was at my most open and impressionable, that shaped the entire way I perceive music.

Sometimes this makes it hard to tell if I like Broadcast because of my taste, or if my taste was shaped so much by hearing Broadcast when I did. Whenever I do a list of my favorite albums at the end of the year, I’m struck by how much they all resemble Broadcast — sometimes literally through sound, but more often philosophically, through the ideas and principles of their music. Their traits are what I think every band should aspire to: imagination, thoughtfulness, intelligence, etc.

Lately, I’ve been writing and thinking a lot about topical music, and wondering why it does so little for me. It’s another area where Broadcast set a standard: their lyrics almost never were about providing commentary, but instead focused on more abstract concepts of the mind and self. It’s not so much that I view music as a pure escape that should never address the real world. It’s more that using it as a platform for basic political bickering feels like such a diminishment of music’s potential power. If a song can be about anything, and make someone feel anything, why would you choose to make it resemble a bad Thanksgiving dinner conversation?

As usual, Broadcast provided a guide on how to do this sort of song the right way with “America’s Boy,” the first single off 2005’s Tender Buttons. It is one of their only songs that provides anything resembling commentary on society, but it is done in a way that is uniquely theirs that makes it hold up 14 years later. It also represents possibly their greatest departure in terms of sound. With the band reduced to a duo of Trish Keenan and James Cargill, it has a repetitive drum machine beat, a distorted synth, and a more claustrophobic feeling that combines the minimalism of The Noise Made By People with the buzzing clatter of Haha Sound.

But it’s the lyrics that stand out. Keenan offers up a collection of free association images and words that cohere into a portrait of an American soldier, or possibly just America in general. Given the timing of the song’s release, it’s not hard to connect the dots to the Iraq war, but it’s also far from one of those ineffectual artist screeds informing us that war is bad, actually. The tone from her words and her singing is more one of bemusement, a British person looking at our weird culture with a sense of amazement.

Keenan said the inspiration came from doing a crossword puzzle and getting annoyed by its difficulty. “In my frustration at not being able to decipher the clues, I began to react to them, make up my own answers, mimicking back the language of the clues. I was interested then in possible answers. I got on a roll arguing with the clues, asking questions back, taking offence to them and deliberately misreading them.” It’s a fitting creative spark given how often Broadcast’s songs resemble cryptic puzzles that are fun to solve. It’s not hard to gather a general meaning at what the lyrics in “America’s Boy” are hinting at, but Keenan’s own motivations are where it gets trickier. Is she in awe of America or angry about its imperialistic tendencies? Or maybe it’s a mix of both.

I don’t think there’s a correct interpretation here which is part of why “America’s Boy” has endured. The title is one I still mentally apply to any number of privileged old white guys in this country. Keenan’s vagueness and her puzzle-like approach may have made this song less visceral when it was released compared to more in-your-face protest music, but now it still sounds fresh because it wasn’t purely about her opinions and feelings. Instead, she gave autonomy to the listener, who is allowed to try to connect the clues and find the possible answers.

“What Chaos is Imaginary” Shows a Band in Flux

In one of my recent posts, I lamented the way really young artists are disproportionately hyped in the music industry due to novelty. That doesn’t mean I don’t listen to any of them, and one of my favorites in the past few years has been Girlpool, who started out making amateurish, heartfelt songs that were reminiscent of The Shaggs on Before the World Was Big, then evolved into a full-fledged indie rock band on 2017’s Powerplant. They overhauled their sound while maintaining the band’s biggest strength: the genuine connection between Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad, who sang in interlocked harmonies and conveyed authentic, youthful feelings instead of trying to sound older than they are. It made me feel like I was hearing the band grow up and change on every song.

That theme continues on their new album, What Chaos is Imaginary, but in a way that is much more dramatic than I would have expected. Tucker came out as transgender last year and started taking testosterone, which lowered their singing voice. It’s a courageous decision that is way more important than music, and it feels like trivializing it to analyze how it impacts the band. But they did put out a new album with Tucker’s voice on it, and it’s impossible to ignore how it has fundamentally changed the band’s aesthetic — those lockstep feminine harmonies are gone, which is what gave Girlpool their distinct style that reminded me of a musical version of nursery rhymes or “Little Red Riding Hood.”

Not to be too clinical about it, but all of this makes What Chaos is Imaginary fascinating to listen to. It’s not just hearing a band evolve like all of them do from album to album; it’s a band that has lost one instrument and replaced it with a new one. And parts of this album reflect what must have been the difficulty of figuring that out — I think it runs a little too long at 14 songs and 45 minutes and it sounds like they’re trying many different types of songs without a clear idea of what the band should be now, especially compared to the focused and confident sound of Powerplant.

While Tucker and Tividad always sang simultaneously before this, here they settle into more of a traditional lead singer/backing singer dynamic on most songs. The ones where Tucker takes lead are the biggest departures from the band’s previous material; “Lucy’s” and “Hire” show their new voice and are the most traditional indie rock songs the band has made. Tividad’s songs like “Pretty” and “Stale Device” are closer to the familiar Girlpool sound with the harmonies and mix of sweet melodies and abrasiveness. Chunks of the album feel almost too traditional to me — without the unique harmonies of previous material, a lot of this sounds like a normal indie rock band, and I feared the magic from previous recordings may have been lost.

But they find something that really works in the back half of the album. “Minute in Your Mind” and the title track are spacy ballads with keyboards that add an extra layer of psychedelia to the band. On the former track, Tucker’s voice sounds at home in the more subdued mode, and Tividad harmonizes on the back half of the song in a way that is reminiscent of old Girlpool but still inherently different. Tividad takes the lead on “What Chaos is Imaginary,” which adds strings to the mix and is the band’s most ambitious recording yet, with a larger sense of scale than anything they’ve ever done.

The way Tividad and Tucker separate from each other on the album is reminiscent of how tight friendships can fade away or change in meaning year by year. The change here is drastic but it also feels true to life, and there is a lot to like here in the songwriting (which is as soulful and endearing as it’s always been) and the band’s ability to find new sounds and push themselves on every recording. Part of me still is unfairly focusing too much on what was lost and is mourning the old Girlpool sound from Powerplant. But something has also been gained on What Chaos is Imaginary, and it is exciting to think of the future of this collaboration that surprises and evolves with every album.