I’ve mentioned a few times how Broadcast had one of the most satisfying arcs of any band I’m a fan of, which ties into the somewhat nebulous concept of a band “progressing” from album to album. At the root of this desire to evolve as a band, there has to be some element of dissatisfaction with their previous output, even if it is material as good as The Noise Made By People and Haha Sound. Initially, it was jarring to look up old interviews with Trish Keenan around the release of Tender Buttons and see her dismiss albums I think are so great. “We always wear our references too much on our sleeves,” she said prior to the release of this album. “We needed to do something that was more us, other than in the shadow of all the 60s bands.”
On Tender Buttons, Broadcast shed away all of the excess references and inspirations that defined a lot of their previous music and presented the most distilled version of themselves. While minimalist in construction, the new duo set-up brings out more of Keenan herself, and this feels like her most personal work with the most heart of any Broadcast album. It’s also yet another lesson in how simplicity in music can bring out the most complex emotions.
Keenan’s lyrics on the album were the result of “automatic writing,” a supernatural or spiritual concept that I probably wouldn’t believe in if anyone else claimed it was legitimate, but who am I to argue with Trish. “They are my free falling thoughts,” she said of the lyrics. “I believe that words have their own life; that if you throw words together, they naturally make sense. Language just wants to be understood.” The songs fit Keenan’s description and are built around seemingly random phrases and repetition that are left to be figured out by the listener. This style is my favorite part of Tender Buttons; it feels more human and natural than traditional lyricism, which is so often built around artifice in terms of contrived rhyming schemes and ham-fisted “meaning.” It takes a kind of humble brilliance to let the words form their own meaning for the listener organically instead of using your music to tell people how they should feel, and I’m increasingly convinced this is a key part of Broadcast’s timeless appeal.
The automatic writing is part of what makes the album more overtly spooky as Keenan and Cargill became more fascinated with supernatural and ghostly themes that would partially define the band’s later work. “Black Cat” is built around the titular image, which is a staple of scary kid’s stories and superstitions, along with phrases that contain little nuggets of meaning: “curiouser and curiouser,” “awkwardness happening to someone you love,” “shadowing masonic verve.” Keenan’s voice is less sing-songy than before; at times she is closer to speaking than singing, which is part of why the atmosphere is more frigid and unsettling compared to their previous style. I find Tender Buttons to be their most difficult album to get into for that reason, but eventually the humanity and sense of wonder in Broadcast’s music shines through, even in the new setting.
In typical Broadcast fashion, the songs here combine eeriness and warmth in a way that I’m not sure any other artist has done at this level. Some of their most affecting songs are on Tender Buttons: “Tears in the Typing Tool” is a spare ballad Keenan sang for her father, who was dying of a terminal illness. A personal favorite is “Corporeal,” which has an addictive motorik groove and lyrics that connect a lot of Broadcast’s most resonant themes for me, in particular the merging of humanity and technology. I also am always moved by the simple instrumental closing track, “I Found the End,” which has gained a deeper meaning through Keenan’s death and feels like the end of an era for the band as the closing to their last traditional pop album.
While this is nothing close to as playful as Haha Sound, there are some more upbeat tracks on the back half that play off the delightful absurdity of Keenan’s lyrics. “Michael A Grammar” is Broadcast’s version of a danceable pop song; Keenan fittingly sings “my feet are dancing so much and I hate that.” “Goodbye Girls” was inspired by prostitution, but its bouncy sound helps put a positive, empathetic spin on a subject that is rarely portrayed with any depth in art. It’s another small example of how Keenan added so much humanity to these songs.
Tender Buttons, like Haha Sound before it, shows how a band can evolve and grow while still being true to themselves. Even with the sounds changing so much on each album, Keenan’s singing, lyrics, and presence gave the band a foundation that carried through in everything they made. On this album, she proved that she only needed her voice and the most minimal instrumentation to make some of the most creative and enduring pop songs ever made.