The Legacy of Trish Keenan: All Circles Vanish

There’s a reason beyond my own laziness that this project has hit a snag: Broadcast and the Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age (henceforth referred to in this piece as “this album”) is a uniquely difficult album that resists most typical attempts at interpretation and analysis. I’ve never been sure if I really understood everything it was trying to do, or if I was even meant to. Through the years, my opinions on it have vacillated from “this isn’t even a true Broadcast album” all the way to “this is the most Broadcast album of all the Broadcast albums.”

Released four years after Tender Buttons, this album was a collaboration with The Focus Group (Julian House), who had collaborated on the band’s artwork in the past and had an obsession with digging through the past and repurposing old sounds into little bits of psychedelia. He drove enough of this project to receive equal billing, which has led to a weird modern frustration — this album doesn’t appear on Broadcast’s Spotify page, but is listed under “Broadcast and the Focus Group,” making it easy to miss for new fans discovering the group and adding to the perception that this was more of a side project and not one of the band’s “true” albums. This was also the only Broadcast album (other than 2011’s posthumous Berberian Sound Studio, which I don’t really think of as one of their “canon” albums) released while I was an active fan, but I mostly remember not initially liking it because it was so different, and I might have went about five years before I even listened to it again.

Years later, the album has grown on me a lot, but I still think there was some validity to my initial reaction — that the appeal of Broadcast was how they made pop songs that were simple, but contained layers of weirdness and psychedelia underneath that you could gradually unfold. This album removes a lot of that satisfying subtlety and replaces it with very overt strangeness — this is more of a shout than a whisper like “Echo’s Answer.” The litany of samples and sounds in every song are jarring, and I’ve never been able to tell how much of it was original material and how much was scrapbooked together from old horror movies and the Radiophonic Workshop. The only traditional song on this album comes at the beginning: “The Be Colony” isn’t too far off from classic Broadcast and is one of my favorites by the group.

After that, this album is pretty much just a trip, and it takes a lot of the more subtle psychedelic aspects in Broadcast’s music and amplifies them to the fullest. The entire Alice in Wonderland construction of their songs comes very heavily to the forefront here, with Keenan’s ghostly innocent voice surrounded by all sorts of obscure sounds. It is never unpleasant to listen to because of the band’s gift for gentle melodies, but at times it is frustrating because of its patchwork structure. Parts like the haunting beginning of “Royal Chant” that I want to go on forever drift away in about 40 seconds, replaced by the next oddball sound they dug up. That makes it difficult to latch onto any sort of central meaning or purpose to the songs at times.

I’m normally weary of just accepting musician’s explanations of what their music is at face value (I prefer deciding for myself), but in this case, Keenan had a good summary:

I’d like people to enjoy the album as a Hammer horror dream collage where Broadcast play the role of the guest band at the mansion drug party by night, and a science worshipping Eloi possessed by 3/4 rhythms by day, all headed by the Focus Group leader who lays down sonic laws that break through the corrective systems of timing and keys.

That provides a bit of a road map to the album, but it’s still one that, at least for me, is more prickly and hard to love than all of their other efforts. One thing I think defines Broadcast’s music is a spirit of generosity — their songs had a warmth to them through sound, but also allowed listeners freedom to slowly find the truth and meaning hinted at in their songs. This is the only music they made that has a hint of self-indulgence to it, a sense that maybe it was more fun for them to make than it was to listen to.

Despite these reservations, there are times I listen to this album and convince myself that it was actually the purest representation of Broadcast. It captures many of the band’s obsessions in their purest form: the use of old sounds to create something new and weird, the desire to challenge listeners, and the idea of using psychedelic music as a door into a different way of thinking. It’s radically different from everything they did previously, yet also kind of the same, and I believe the band set out to make an album that was effective in part because it was disorienting, confusing, and not easily interpreted or analyzed. Broadcast loved making puzzles, and this is one I still haven’t figured out — that might make it the most effective of them all.

The Legacy of Trish Keenan: Curiouser and Curiouser

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.

The Legacy of Trish Keenan

For the last few months, I’ve been writing a multi-part series about one of my favorite artists, Trish Keenan. My blog doesn’t seem to handle this multi-part concept that well from a readers’ standpoint (especially since I’m writing other stuff in between each installment), so I’m compiling a table of contents here with links to each post in order. I still have a few parts left, which will be edited in later.

Chapter One: Before We Begin (Introduction/Work and Non Work)

Chapter Two: The Impossible Song (“Echo’s Answer”)

Chapter Three: It’s Hard to Tell Who is Real in Here (“Come On Let’s Go”)

Chapter Four: TNMBP (The Noise Made By People)

Chapter Five: Valerie (“Valerie” and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders)

Chapter Six: Let the Balloons Go Outside (Haha Sound)

Chapter Seven: America’s Boy (“America’s Boy”)

Chapter Eight: Curiouser and Curiouser (Tender Buttons)

Chapter Nine: All Circles Vanish ( Broadcast and the Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age)

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.

The Legacy of Trish Keenan: Let the Balloons Go Outside

Since I don’t do drugs, I think the most psychedelic experience I’ve ever had was when I let go of a balloon outside for the first time and watched it rise into the air until it turned into a tiny dot and disappeared. It made no sense to me that a balloon would do that and nothing else would, and I wondered where it ended up — if it was in space or if it crashed on an island somewhere. As a kid, it might have been the first thing that made me start to ponder the depths of the universe and realize how little I knew about it.

Now that I am something resembling an adult, I have no use for balloons. If someone came up to me on the street and handed me one, I would say “why are you giving me this balloon.” If they insisted on me taking on the burden of the balloon, I would walk around with it for awhile out of some weird sense of guilt, then eventually get tired of having to hold the string and let it go because I don’t care about the environment. And as the balloon rose up, I wouldn’t think about how cool it was that this object was floating into space. I would think “yeah balloons do that because of helium or science or whatever.”

Trish Keenan either never stopped being fascinated by balloons or found a way to channel that sense of kid wonder through her music. As easy as it is to feel depressed about her death while listening to Broadcast, on Haha Sound the predominant feeling I get is joy. “Lunch Hour Pops” might be their most overtly happy-sounding song — it’s like a nursery rhyme with her sing-song vocals plus the chirping electronics, and includes the refrain “let the balloons go outside.” It’s an ambiguous psychedelic image that also captures the band’s approach to making this album.

Haha Sound is a pop music carnival where every song is like a different exhibition that shows the listener something new. There is the cotton candy girl-group inspired “Before We Begin,” the spiky sci-fi rock of “Pendulum,” the warm, affecting shoegaze of the last two tracks, “Winter Now” and “Hawk.” If there was a criticism to be aimed at The Noise Made By People (there wasn’t, but speaking theoretically here), it’s that it was very focused on a specific minimal aesthetic. Haha Sound feels like a reaction to that: it’s Broadcast at their most maximalist, and the joy comes from hearing the band explore every possible texture and sound they can come up with while still combining all of that weirdness with timeless pop songwriting.

This would be the last Broadcast album before it reduced to a duo of Keenan and James Cargill, probably because it used up every idea they had for the full band. Neil Bullock’s drumming is worth singling out because the rhythms on this album are really creative and make every song on Haha Sound feel distinct. “Man is Not a Bird” is his best showcase; its dense sound and the textures he provides make it a significant departure from TNMBP while maintaining all of the band’s strengths.

Keenan sits at the center of these kaleidoscopic pop fantasies, observing the strange world around her with a sense of awe and wonder. Whether it’s Alice in WonderlandThe Wizard of Oz, or Valerie and her Week of Wonders, there is something about the concept of the ordinary woman in a fantasy land that resonates, and she inhabits that role on Haha Sound perfectly. She adds such relatability to the band’s psychedelic sounds and visuals, like on “Ominous Cloud,” where the titular image is used to convey trying to overcome self-doubt and procrastination like all of us do.

While I’ve always loved Haha Sound, it didn’t emotionally connect with me as much as Broadcast’s other music until I started listening to it repeatedly in the last few weeks. Lately, I’ve been more into music that can take me back to my old balloon-loving self while still treading new ground, and this album’s unjaded sound appeals to me now more than ever. I’ve also been asking myself what makes this band’s music ageless, and I think it lies in its mix of classic pop songwriting and malleable lyrics, themes, and sounds. No matter where I’m at in life, I’ll be able to find something in Haha Sound that makes me feel and sparks my imagination.

The Legacy of Trish Keenan: Valerie

Broadcast had a wide range of esoteric influences in many different mediums, but one that comes up over and over again in interviews is the 1970 Czech film Valerie and her Week of Wonders. It’s a surrealist fairy tale about a 13-year old named Valerie who is becoming a woman. She has magical earrings which lead to a bizarre and frightening story involving a creepy priest, her vampire grandma, a polecat, and a boy who loves her and may or may not be her brother. The film raises many interesting questions like “what is this,” “what am I watching” and “isn’t that guy dead.”

Regardless of the actual quality of the film, it’s easy to see why it inspired Trish Keenan. Broadcast’s music always had a fairy tale feeling with Keenan’s voice playing the Valerie role of innocence amid the strange electronic fantasies they created. A lot of the imagery in Valerie and her Week of Wonders is the type of uncanny beauty that was Broadcast’s trademark. Another direct influence is Lubos Fiser’s lush soundtrack, which at times feels like a precursor to Broadcast’s sound.

After the smooth elegance of The Noise Made By People, Broadcast leaned further into the Valerie inspiration on Haha Sound, marking a departure for the band which would be typical from record to record. The space of TNMBP is replaced with tons of texture in the form of diverse percussion sounds, buzzing electronics, and other clatter. It puts Keenan in the center of a musical fantasy that is reminiscent of the film’s surreal imagery. They don’t exactly hide this: one song is called “Valerie” and borrows the melody from Fiser’s soundtrack while Keenan sings about the magical earrings.

“Valerie” stands out as one of the prettiest songs in Broadcast’s discography with its gentle strumming and Keenan’s innocent performance of Fiser’s melody. It also is a testament to how good they were at repurposing art that inspired them into music that fit their own sound. I loved this song before I even knew what Valerie and her Week of Wonders was, and I never even watched the movie until a few days ago. Understanding where some of this band’s ideas came from adds a layer of appreciation to it, but isn’t necessary at all.

I suspect the band would quite enjoy that I ended up watching the movie because of their music. Part of Broadcast’s charm was that they came off as so enthusiastic about their influences, and they used their music to try to get listeners interested in art they felt was meaningful. What I’m still discovering in their music now are little reference points that I never recognized as someone who hasn’t ventured into a lot of the areas Keenan was obsessed with. They function almost as easter eggs that make the band into cool friends that turn you onto stuff you wouldn’t have found on your own.

The sincerity of their love for Valerie and her Week of Wonders is why the band borrowing the melody for “Valerie” feels like such a thoughtful homage when in other hands it could have been perceived as an act of theft. It’s the band resurrecting this old, forgotten piece of art and bringing it into conversation with the present and the future. The term “retro-futurism” kind of sounds like music writer babble, but “Valerie” is a direct example of it, where the past, present, and future all collide in one song. The rest of Haha Sound finds similar joy in linking different eras in a way that Broadcast did better than everyone else.

The Legacy of Trish Keenan: TNMBP

“Look Outside,” the ninth track on The Noise Made By People, only has two lines of lyrics: “I look outside and wherever I go you are there. You color in the every day wherever I go.” The rest of the song is instrumental, with a keyboard, a light guitar part, and splashing cymbals joined by Trish Keenan’s wordless voice that blends into the sound. It’s constructed in a way to make the listener ponder those simple words and what they might mean. It could just be a love song, but it also describes one of the core principles behind Broadcast’s music: the idea of psychedelia as a way to elevate the ordinary.

That theme is conveyed on this album through music that is consciously accessible and basic on the surface. Especially compared to their future releases, nothing that happens here is too complicated and the songs tend to stick to familiar pop structures. The lyrics in particular are written in a very elementary vocabulary with a lot of one-syllable words. The opening track,”Long was the Year,” introduces the band’s strategic use of brevity with lyrics like “be like the sun/never gone” and “sleep long and fast/let the past be the past.” This approach to language emphasizes the sing-songy qualities of Keenan’s voice while also being much more psychedelic and thought-provoking than many bands that write overly complex lyrics.

Keenan understood that the best art is the type that goes “off the page” and isn’t easily explained. The brief lyrics on The Noise Made By People are like sketches that hint at certain emotions or feelings, but are left to be fully colored in by the listener. This sort of ambiguity is a gift: it allows people to project themselves onto the music and to find their own way through the space that the band creates. It’s the key to why this is one of the most enduring albums I listen to and why I consider it a classic.

In an interview with Wired (which I’ll be using a lot because it has so many good Trish quotes), Keenan outlined how she views psychedelia as “a door through to another way of thinking about sound and song. Not a world only reachable by hallucinogens but obtainable by questioning what we think is real and right, by challenging the conventions of form and temper.” And that seems to be a particular focus on this album, which I usually describe in oxymoronic terms. It’s electronic but deeply human, it’s simple and yet so complex, and it sounds like the past and the future at the same time.

It made me reconsider certain preconceptions that I had about psychedelic music. I always assumed it meant there would be 10-minute songs that used words like “cosmotronic.” Broadcast proved that a whole world could be opened up through three-minute pop songs. It inspired me as a writer, the way the band sounded so smart and communicated such complex ideas through simple, unpretentious language — that’s something I aspire to. It made me appreciate electronic music, which I had previously written off almost entirely because I didn’t think I could connect to it like I did with this.

I already wrote about “Come On Let’s Go” and “Echo’s Answer,” which are the two opposite ends of the spectrum on this album. The rest of the songs occupy a space in between those extremes, combining beguiling pop and gentle psychedelia. It’s a style that usually gets labeled as “dream pop,” but Broadcast’s music is more about conscious thought than dreaming. The Noise Made By People tingles the brain in a way that few albums do — it’s a joy to listen to because of its songwriting and can be pondered for eternity without being completely solved.

Thus far I’ve been snubbing Trish Keenan’s bandmates (James Cargill, Roj Stevens, Tim Felton, Steve Perkins), but they shine on this album, especially given that surprisingly little of it features her voice. That outro on “Look Outside” is their best moment, but they also play a trio of instrumentals (“Minus One,” “Tower of Our Tuning,” and the finale “Dead the Long Year”) that add some pacing and texture to the album. And while Keenan’s voice and delivery has natural psychedelic qualities, a lot of that comes out in the retro-futuristic sound, which was inspired by eerie 60s groups but still feels like something no one else has caught up to.

“Unchanging Window” is one of the other songs on this album that is definitively Broadcast. It has that vague intangible quality that “Echo’s Answer” does while also being catchy in its own way with another memorable instrumental outro. The titular window goes back to the motif on “Look Outside” that runs through this album: the idea of seeing and thinking differently through music. The window doesn’t change, but what you perceive through it does.

Poppy songs like “City in Progress” and “Papercuts” contribute to making this Broadcast’s most accessible album. That is often said in a snobbish and dismissive way, but the elegance and listenability of The Noise Made By People strengthen its themes and make it an album that will endure forever, as long as people get the chance to hear it. Anyone who finds it will get the ultimate musical experience: an album that opens your eyes and makes you see the world differently.