The Legacy of Trish Keenan: Until Then

If you think nothing is yours
And if I think everything belongs to me
How wrong I’ll be
None of us have anything
There’s a place I have never explored
Another world we have yet to conquer
And until then none of us have anything

Those words, from “Until Then” off The Noise Made By People, have stuck with me more than any other lyrics in music. In typical Broadcast fashion, they’re simple, and sung unpretentiously, yet lend themselves to unlimited interpretation. They’re paired with creaky, heaving synths that near the end swell into a massive buzzing crescendo that was probably the loudest the typically quiet band ever sounded on record. Then suddenly, it stops, and reverts to silence — a beautiful sound is extinguished.

Trish Keenan died in January, 2011, after contracting swine flu while on tour in Australia. She was only 42 years old. At the time, I was living in a dorm room during J-Term and I woke up to the news from Pitchfork and couldn’t believe it. Again, I wish I had a better story, like I cried or went into a fascinating nihilistic tailspin. But all I did was turn on her music, and I listened to Broadcast’s whole discography all the way through that day, mostly through my crummy laptop speakers, I think out of hope it would somehow echo through the building and people would hear it and discover it.

Her death meant the context of the songs changed permanently, and because they tended towards being ambiguous, some of them, like “Until Then,” jumped out more than they had for me previously. Now I think Keenan’s lyrics describe an afterlife or possibly a parallel universe — a psychedelic kind of world separate from this one where I like to imagine her continuing to explore and find the truth. Normally, I don’t buy into such concepts, but Keenan’s greatest gift was her ability to make you believe, to provide thoughtfulness and hope in the face of cynicism and darkness.

In the wake of her death, there was a gratifying outpouring of appreciation for Keenan, including from a range of celebrities, and a lot of discussion about a band that was rarely the subject of online discourse. But then everyone moved on, as they do, and now I wonder if people under a certain age have any idea who this band is (even I’m probably on the very young side of Broadcast fans). It’s also become abundantly clear that bands like Broadcast aren’t a priority for the music press, which has become a monoculture that is obsessed with what is new and hip, not necessarily what will last. If music writing isn’t about preserving bands like this, that offer so much, then what exactly is being accomplished?

Ultimately, the responsibility now lies on fans of the band to pass this music down, almost like an oral history. One of the more satisfying experiences I had recently (back when I thought I would finish this series in a couple months) was attending a Keenan tribute show at Moon Palace Books, which featured local bands covering her songs. The entire room was cramped with people talking about Keenan, celebrating her art, and every singer did their best to interpret her songs, even though she had something intangible that will never be replicated. That was when I saw the impact of her music in more real terms: while Keenan was not a mega-celebrity, and isn’t a constant source of discussion now, there was this entire group of people inspired and moved by her music, many of whom were playing in their own bands. That’s the legacy I like artists to strive for rather than winning awards or generating buzz.

Keenan was able to inspire that kind of devotion while being soft-spoken and unassuming. She let her music do most of the talking and made songs that gave listeners the freedom to join her while she explored all of these different worlds. As a relative novice to music when I discovered the band, she was the artist who inspired me the most, who showed me the joy that could be had in hearing music that aimed to be intelligent, generous, and personal rather than just profitable. And she made me want to pay that forward, to try to convince people that there are amazing obscure artists out there who can change your life and are just waiting to be discovered.

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

Here is the complete table of contents for my ten-part series on Trish Keenan, which I finally finished. It’s possible I’ll edit and compile all of these into a more digestible form at some point, but for now this is the easiest way to get all of the posts in one place (there is also a “Legacy of Trish Keenan” category that has all the posts).

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)

Chapter Ten: Until Then (Until Then,” conclusion)