When I named this blog “The Noise Made By People,” I didn’t really think about how big of a gamble it was to name it after one of my favorite albums. After all, there is a lot of music I listened to back then that I don’t even really like anymore, and some that is downright embarrassing. But over the years, as so many artists have come and gone, the music of Broadcast has remained the one constant of my music fandom. I didn’t even process it as a risk because some part of me knew that would be the case.
All of music is so subjective, and I’ve learned it’s not really worth trying to convince people to care about anything that really matters to you. But I’m still motivated to write by some sense of justice — the feeling that some artists simply deserve a chance to be heard, or credit for doing something great that hasn’t been given to them. A lot of that motivation came from loving Broadcast so much and feeling like any amount of effort would be worth it if I could get one more person to experience this band.
Despite my love for them, I haven’t really written at length about Broadcast, at least not since the beginning days of the blog. I’m motivated now out of fear that their music could completely disappear from the consciousness. Trish Keenan’s tragic death means there won’t be a trendy reunion tour where everyone looks back on their music, and other writers have become so obsessed with newness that there is no incentive for them to look back at a band like Broadcast. I don’t think they’re going to be included in the canon of their time, even though I don’t believe there was a better band during their existence.
Maybe that’s overstating things, and I’ll admit it’s hard to separate my more objective evaluation of the band with what they mean to me personally. The truth is, I never felt like someone who was necessarily predisposed to like psychedelic music. Drugs terrify me and I’ve never done them, I don’t really care for a lot of the hippie stuff that has often gone hand-in-hand with it, and even now I rarely feel like I fit in with that segment of music fans. A lot of the credit (or blame) for my taste goes to this band, because their whole discography functions as an argument in favor of psychedelia as a form of escape and a way to expand the mind.
And Keenan was the perfect guide for a psychedelia newbie. Their music always makes me think of Alice in Wonderland, with Keenan being this ordinary woman who is thrust into a strange universe that she needs to make sense of. She was an incredible singer, but in part because she didn’t show off with big notes or consciously mind-blowing lyrics. She was just very human and there was a sincerity in everything she did, and when it was combined with their often strange retro-futuristic music, it was magic.
What I find most satisfying about looking at Broadcast’s music in order is how they didn’t follow the dispiriting path so many artists take, where they start out being super exciting and show tons of promise, then gradually recede towards bland normalcy in an effort to appeal to more and more people. They started out in a place that was kind of ordinary, then with every record they built on their sound, explored new areas, and took their dedicated listeners with them on a journey. The end result is what I would consider the most rewarding music I’ve listened to, and it’s why I always use this band as an example of doing things the right way.
Their first singles were released in the mid-90s and compiled on 1997’s Work and Non-Work, which as I mentioned before, isn’t the type of debut that really blows you away and makes you certain that the band is destined for greatness. And reading really deep between the lines, I don’t get the sense that the band was ever incredibly proud of these early songs. It’s really good music, but it doesn’t quite feel like Broadcast, or at least not what they would become.
I don’t have a time machine, but I speculate that part of the issue was timing: these songs were released when this type of loungy downtempo electronic music was at the height of its popularity. In particular, the band was burdened by comparisons to Stereolab and perceived as kitschy and nostalgic. This wasn’t helped by the inclusion of “The Book Lovers” on the Austin Powers soundtrack, which is still very weird to me.
These early songs mostly establish one aspect of the band’s sound, which is their ability to mine the past and create a sense of nostalgia in their music. They were particularly obsessed with the 60s band The United States of America, and on Work and Non Work, it sometimes sounds like they’re emulating that band more than they’re finding their own sound. But in hindsight, it’s also easy to hear some of the seeds for what would make this band so special on their ensuing albums.
While these are their least musically adventurous songs, that makes them a real showcase for Keenan as a relatively traditional singer. The band was still tinkering with their sound and figuring out what worked, but she was captivating from the very beginning. She always struck me as very shy and thoughtful, and it comes through in her singing, which has this humble quality to it. On these songs, she sings with more directness than she would in future releases, but she already had that quiet confidence and human quality that added so much to their music.
Still, the songs on Work and Non Work aren’t the ones I tend to revisit when I go back and listen to Broadcast, even though they’re really quite good. That’s more a testament to the strength of the rest of their music and the way they evolved so naturally than an indictment of these songs. The band took their sweet time following up on these singles, which would become routine for a group that always seemed to think through everything they did and never compromised their art in any way. And on their next single, they found their identity as a band, creating a song that to this day still doesn’t feel like it should have been possible.