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”)

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.

The Legacy of Trish Keenan: It’s Hard to Tell Who is Real in Here

Let’s face it: a lot of musicians sound like assholes. Music as a medium lends itself to mopey whining or egotistical displays of bravura and skill. Think of any breakup song ever written or any long guitar solo. This isn’t even necessarily a criticism, because it’s sometimes fun to listen to and I like my share of socially maladjusted artists. But I’ve also found in recent years that I really like it when musicians sound nice, even though that’s often associated with being boring.

That might all spring from “Come On Let’s Go,” which is the first Broadcast song I loved and Trish Keenan’s most endearing performance — one that shows how a single song can totally color your perception of a performer. It’s about a nearly taboo topic in music: being a kind, caring, generous person.

This is the second single off The Noise Made By People, and it’s quite a contrast to “Echo’s Answer.” While that song is inscrutable and bewildering, “Come On Let’s Go” is immediate. It’s the purest pop song the band ever made and it was easy for me to embrace the bouncy sound, Trish’s warm voice, and the straight-forward, relatable lyrics. The positioning of these songs as the first two singles that appear consecutively on the album has linked them together in my mind, and I believe it was a conscious strategy by the band.

Part of it is showing the range of the band in two songs, a way of saying “look what we can do” to the listener. They can make a perfect, catchy pop song, then follow it up with something strange and baffling that barely resembles a song at all. Functionally, “Come On Let’s Go” also serves as a gateway into Broadcast’s music. As a less experienced listener, this is the song I gravitated towards because it was so simple and got stuck in my head, and my love for it helped me get into all of their other songs like “Echo’s Answer.”

Once I got into those songs, there was a period where I didn’t listen to “Come On Let’s Go” much, and I’m ashamed to admit at times I felt like I’d “moved on” from it. Now I’ve come full circle as I’ve gained an appreciation the craft of a pop song, especially one that holds up as well as this one after almost 20 years. In fact, some of its lyrics might resonate now more than they did when the song was originally written.

No lyrics describe life in the social media age as well as “it’s hard to tell who is real in here” and “what’s the point in wasting time on people that you’ll never know.” Now more than ever, it’s really easy to get caught up in what other people think and to spend tons of mental energy endearing yourself to strangers who don’t actually care about you. Whenever I find myself doing that, this song echoes in my mind. It’s like a gentle pep talk from Keenan to stop being so stupid.

It’s not like these lyrics are revolutionary concepts, but there is something about Keenan’s delivery and the warm sound that makes them feel that way. She is just so matter-of-fact and sincere about it: “yeah, I’ll be your friend forever and I’ll always be here.” That is one of the deepest, most human feelings there is, and there aren’t as many songs about it as I feel like there should be. And this really shapes my perception of Keenan, who comes across in her music as such a caring, genuine person, which forms a contrast with so many other artists. “Come On Let’s Go” is one of the songs that separates Broadcast from other electronic/psychedelic bands who twiddle on their instruments but don’t make that human connection.

The ironic part of “what’s the point in wasting time on people that you’ll never know” is that it can apply so easily to the artists we listen to and obsess over. A lot of loving music is forming that one-sided connection with an artist, where they mean the world to you and have no idea who you are. I didn’t know Trish Keenan, and she wasn’t a very public person, but through songs like this I feel like I did. She felt real and I never sensed an ounce of pretension or acting in her music. If this isn’t who she really was, then she was an even more incredible and convincing performer than I realized.

The Legacy of Trish Keenan: The Impossible Song

Sometimes I hear a song and instantly think it’s amazing and everyone needs to hear it this instant and it’s an absolute crime, a travesty that this song isn’t getting showered with praise. Then I listen to it like five or ten more times and realize that actually it isn’t that great and I should probably chill out with the knee-jerk reactions. Other times, I love a song for awhile and then it kind of fades away, and when (if) I go back to listen to it, I still like it, but I don’t remember why I loved it. And even with most of my long-term favorite songs, my enthusiasm for them is often slowly decaying each time I listen to it as I run out of new things to discover in them.

“Echo’s Answer,” which Broadcast released as a single in 1999 and then included on their first full-length, The Noise Made By People, defies that typical life cycle. It might be the only song I’ve heard where I feel like I love it more every time I listen to it, and I’ve listened to it hundreds of times. I don’t have a great story of when I first heard it and like, time stopped and I just looked out the window for eight straight hours listening to it on repeat because I could feel my entire life changing forever. I just remember gradually going from liking it to loving it to now where I hear it and think “HOW DID THEY DO THIS. HOW CAN THIS HAPPEN.”

No experience could be more emblematic of Broadcast. Their music doesn’t necessarily make the greatest first impression, but it always lingers in your memory and never ages. What sounds simple on the surface becomes more complex and inscrutable with every listen. There’s never that moment where it’s “solved” and it’s time to move on. It reverberates forever, like an echo that gets answered infinite times.

What remains remarkable about this song is just how little is going on in it.   There’s no chorus, no hook, just that lonely keyboard part, a ton of space, and Keenan’s sighing vocals. I always think it’s more like a musical painting: the sound is not about telling a story with a clear meaning, but about creating a moment or an image. I picture Keenan standing on a mountain, whispering her words into the wind and hoping for an answer. Sometimes it feels lonely, other times it’s warm and soothing because of the calm sound and her voice. Either way, it’s always beautiful and bewildering.

The placidness of “Echo’s Answer” is audacious, maybe even defiant. It’s so the opposite of what many people expect from music, which is that feeling of getting instantly swept off their feet by a song like they’re a character in Garden State. I cynically wonder if a song like this would ever really find its audience in today’s music landscape, which is so based on virality and getting that instant reaction that feeds algorithms. Subtlety and sophistication are skills that are rarely rewarded with popularity, especially now, but they make songs like this last forever.

I’m not here to rank Broadcast’s songs and albums against each other, which feels like a pretty pointless exercise. But I do think of “Echo’s Answer” as their most defining song as well as their clear creative breakthrough. Anyone who wrote them off as being just a kitschy throwback act after their first singles had to feel like a big idiot when they came out with this. It obliterated any comparisons people had made to other contemporary bands and really put Broadcast into a world of their own, one they explored with so much artistry and depth over the next several years.