“America’s Boy,” the most excitable song off of Broadcast’s newest album, Tender Buttons, must contain one of the very few examples of the Iraq war in art that somehow avoids a pro- or anti-war statement. Its lyrics, according to Trish Keenan, Broadcast’s singer and co-songwriter, reference “a sort of celebration of the American soldier. Snap shots of the heroics of American Imperialism, the all-out impressiveness of its big achievements. Also, something that the British do not have in their culture, a self-celebratory nature of Americans towards their own country.”
Regarding a war which has an increasingly universal consensus as an immense historical blunder, Keenan makes a cultural, rather than political, statement. But of course the real point here isn’t so much that Keenan cares about Britain’s apparent lack of bravura, but rather that Broadcast, contrarian musicians, prefer their own commentary on an event that’s already received so much of other people’s commentary. (Politics, especially, being the most heavy-handed subject in art, where it’s usually the stance itself that wins lauding rather than the more expressive of art’s possibilities.) Better, in their estimation, to say something novel rather than say something that someone else has already said, however imperative the subject may be socially.
As contrarians, Broadcast’s body of work has occupied a finely distinct ground in contemporary music. The sound of their previous work modulated from album to album, from the mesmerizing psychedelia of Work and Non-Work, to the striking Asiatic-tinged constructions of The Noise Made by People, and finally to the giddy and paisley tone of HaHa Sound. And now, perhaps finding nowhere else as distinctive to turn, the band seems to be reacting against its very self by discarding one of the central components of their sound, the jazz drums, which had always provided the band with an ornate texture that swelled into subtle exuberance. On Tender Buttons, nearly every song has a near-similar one-two, one-two smack, a purposefully obtuse repetition, often from early drum machines. The approach works fine as a variation here and there, but assigning this doompfff-thwack, doompfff-thwack to the entire album is clearly an attempt at staying “new”. But certainly, overall, something is missed by jettisoning a source of so much of their prior feel.
There’s a more general paring down on Tender Buttons as well. While still employing a carefully crafted lo-fi engineering, they rely a great deal more on clatter and bang than before. Noise was always a part of Broadcast’s sound, but always as one form of instrument among others, always serving a contextual purpose. On Tender Buttons, the noise – the cracking and buzzing of over-amplification, the digital breakup of lowered bit rates, the more driving rhythms – covers the entire album. Giving this much prominence to dissonance risks rendering Broadcast closer to an “experimental noise band,” where the noise in itself is the point, not the song.
There’s a certain ostentation to Broadcast. If you don’t share their aesthetic, you might well find them unnecessarily difficult. When their songs lose the strong sense of form and affecting overall feeling (as their previous albums all had, and as Tender Buttons begins to lose), then this ostentation becomes more self-conscious and begs for questioning: Are these harsh sounds stimulating? Or is the band simply play-acting at something avant?
Again, a listener’s reaction to these sounds and these questions depend upon one’s aesthetics. If you’ve sought out such outré music or if you’ve adored Broadcast’s prior work, you might not ask these questions at all. Whatever Tender Button‘s shortcomings, if you don’t compare Tender Buttons to their previous work, you might just simply enjoy the album and leave it at that. There’s plenty there; it’s just that there’s plenty more promise in the same musicians.