Review Summary: a bedtime story read in the twilight of sleep
It’s a curious thing, listening to an artist after their passing. Death casts a portentous shadow over old, forgotten albums, imbuing them with a lurid gravitas, a blooming significance; they become inextricable pieces of a broader legacy left behind by their creators. Of Broadcast’s all too brief discography, Tender Buttons
is the worthiest tribute to the memory of Trish Keenan. A world away from the sprawling, starry-eyed psychedelia of earlier material, Tender Buttons
is austere, sparse, and muscular—a disciplined exercise in electronic pop minimalism. Alongside her husband and long-time bandmate, James Cargill, Keenan shaped an album brimming with dichotomies: it is complex in its simplicity, alienating in its intimacy, and, oftentimes, very beautiful in its dissonance.
strips away the bloated instrumentation of its middling predecessors and pulls Keenan’s performance sharply into focus. Free of competition, her spectral voice sounds outright other-worldly: a siren’s song, clear and bell-like, ringing out across a sea of bit-crushed synths and desiccated drum machines. When paired with the philosophical absurdism found in her lyrics, Keenan’s somnolent performances make for a strangely dissociative listening experience. The banal minutiae of day to day life, chronicled with the detachment of an anthropological field report, are made to feel off-kilter, surreal. In ‘Corporeal’, a spluttering electro-pop curio, a doctor’s x-ray machine reduces his patient to a mere vertebrate; and the partying detailed in ‘Michael A Grammar’—‘my feet are dancing so much, and I hate that,’ Keenan sighs—feels not just perfunctory, but coercive. Over the gnarled synth lines and groaning oscillations of ‘The Black Cat’, Keenan wryly outlines her oblique worldview better than anyone—‘curious-er and curious-er’.
Fleeting moments of quiescence can be found nestled among the digital howls and shrieks of Tender Buttons
. ‘Tears in the Typing Pool’, a sweetly strummed English folk song, remains sparse and unadorned, as if plucked straight from Keenan’s demo collection. The eponymous track, ‘Tender Buttons’, is a whirring, tremulous mess of acoustic guitars and sawtooth synths, but Keenan’s word associations, whispered plangently over the buzzing chaos, are calming, soporific—like a bedtime story read in the twilight of sleep. The spiritual closer of Tender Buttons
, ‘You and Me in Time’, is the stillest moment on the album: a brief, gentle lullaby shaped by shimmering keyboard chords and cascading vibraphone melodies. The song is a tender rumination on the temporality of life, a gentle reminder of the indefatigable flow of time; but, more significantly, an elegant metaphor for Tender Buttons
itself—you and me, artist and listener, in time.