Tender Buttons

(Warp; 2005)

By Sean Ford | 21 September 2005

No two people choose the exact same music to soundtrack their lives. As much as venerable online music critics strive for an objective tone, or hope to agree on a truly great album, far more often we argue the merits of the slightly flawed ones. Think about it: of the friends you know who actually listen to and appreciate the music you like, how many of them love a band you just can't hope to understand?

The fact is, whether we like to admit it or not, most musical choices end up becoming extremely personal endeavors. So, okay, after we've sorted out issues of talent, quality and cred to suitable levels (assuming we’re all on the same general level of indie snobbery), doesn't it just come down to personal aesthetic and a sense of personal history informing the albums we truly love? (The talented Mr. Newell has summed up this general feeling better than Nick Southall or I could ever hope to do in his epic review of the Russian Futurists.)

Broadcast’s Tender Buttons has been one such beacon for me in a year where I have been able to acknowledge lots of albums as being nicely crafted, but haven’t actually wanted to listen to many of them. From the timeless descending riff that opens “I Found the F” to the softly searing keys of “Black Cat” to the slow-burn epic “Subject to the Ladder,” it’s clear that I won’t have a problem listening to this album; in fact, I’ve actually developed a problem with listening to this album repeatedly.

Broadcast has always seemed like one of those bands capable of putting it all together to create something truly great, but for some reason their two prior studio albums never captured the brilliance hidden on singles and b-sides or the might of their live show. As silly as it may seem to say, there may have actually been too many ideas running at the same time on The Noise Made By People and Ha Ha Sound. Both albums are thick with the sounds of not just the kraut-pop of Stereolab, but the sounds of avant psychedelica and a sort of reverent love for '60s cinema.

Their music from Noise often sounded like a combination of at least three movie soundtracks playing at once with Stereolab’s first album on in the background; it was gorgeous, but also disorienting and seemed to be paced more like a movie than an album. Ha Ha Sound reeled in some of the cinephilia and sounded more like a pop album and showed the band was willing to experiment to nail their impressive live sound on record. Indeed, it featured moments of brilliance, namely “Pendulum,” and coursed with some of the human energy that The Noise Made By People ironically lacked.

Perhaps it really was a case of too many disparate ideas weighing B’cast down. Stripped down to a duo, vocalist Trish Keenan and James Cargill, Tender Buttons feels more urgent and alive than anything Broadcast has ever recorded. The songs are pared down to the simplest fuzzy guitar and key riffs and steady electro-percussion, allowing Keenan to shine. Keenan sings with more force than she has a right to, her icy monotone leaking feeling and betraying emotions that didn’t seem to exist in her vacant vocals on earlier efforts. Keenan’s lyrics hit like cryptic haikus, creating a stream of consciousness feel which add a story layer Broadcast’s soundtracks always needed. On “I Found the F,” Keenan breathes: “I found the fragrance separate from the flower / in all the logic I was lost / I found the fair light blossom to be sour / and beneath the soil the real cost,” which for some reason perfectly suits the winding, ancient melody that wraps itself around and between her beautifully open for interpretation words.

Tender Buttons flows from one electric-humming pop gem to the next. The stuttering, soaring “Black Cat” and the mellow, glitchy word association of “Tender Buttons” follow (“The coal / the coal light / the colours / the cortex / the comb / the calm / the color / the caress / the cortex / the code / the codine / the comma / the context / the corpse / the likeness”). On “America’s Boy,” Broadcast lobs the obligatory volley at the Bush administration with beat-driven half-humor: “Quaker toil and Texas oil… / Nasa nude you’re manly you… / Gun me down with Yankee power / cock pit tom with army charm.”

The album’s opening stretch is probably its strongest, but there are no true missteps; even the repetitive “Corporeal” reveals hidden pleasures that hold up on the thirtieth or so listen. And, really, “Corporeal” and “Arc of a Journey” are just pleasant breaks before the second half really heats up with “Michael A Grammar” and the ridiculously glorious “Subject to the Ladder.” The song is rife with melancholy and features a slow, melodic key riff and more of Keenan’s aching puzzle-piece lyrics. The sparse song somehow paints a bigger picture than most of the layered “cinematic” songs Broadcast used to craft.

Broadcast has gone from a heavy obsession with '60s cinema (though, they’re still rocking the Godardian cover-art) to something resembling stripped down electro-pop that doesn’t bow to any one era, and because of this manages to feel fresh and classic at the same time. They’ve strip-mined their ridiculously deep sound and managed to somehow preserve the integral elements and infuse them with an aching humanity. This isn’t one of those Great Albums, it’s focus is a little too tight with similar-minded songs, but it is one of the slightly flawed ones I’m willing to fight tooth and nail for.