The artwork for Scott Hardware’s latest album, Ballad of a Tryhard, is more than meets the eye—perhaps misleading, even. The cover image is a photograph of a large raffinate tank engulfed in flames, lending a warm orange glow to the ground below, and it’s quite beautiful. The tank was located at a Sunoco plant in Sarnia, Ontario, also known as Canada’s “Chemical Valley” due to its high concentration of power plants, and it exploded in 1996 after it was struck by lightning, requiring roughly 150 firefighters to extinguish the fire. The wet ground in the photo gives the false impression that you’re looking at a shore, and by extension, the disintegrated materials look like the result of a shipwreck. Harwood grew up here, and both his parents and stepparents worked in power plants.
To the average eye, Ballad of a Tryhard probably looks like an album about the end of the world—perhaps Muse’s newest apocalyptic concept album—or even a subtle nod to Led Zeppelin’s debut LP with the iconic image of the burning Hindenburg. Scott Harwood, the Toronto-based artist who records as Scott Hardware, resents the fact that album artwork tends to look a certain way based on the musical genre it falls into. So not only does Ballad of a Tryhard not sound like hollow Alt Nation rock, but it also isn’t about the end times.
Sure, at one point in the album (out now via Telephone Explosion Records), Harwood does sing, in his characteristically rich, tender voice, the words, “The world is on a brink / It’s a disaster,” but the track itself, “Love Through the Trees,” is actually the most transparent love song he’s released to date. Instead, the blazing tank being extinguished can be thought of as Harwood’s own personal healing and the long-awaited euphoria that followed—like a phoenix rising from the ashes. “I’m proud of the [emotional] progress I’ve made,” Harwood tells Paste, “being able to stand up for myself and understand other people’s pain a lot better. I can cry now, sometimes. That’s exciting!” The album may not be about the world ending, but its emphasis on the importance of both human connection and quiet contemplation is valuable wisdom for anyone living through chaos.
As for Ballad of a Tryhard’s music, it’s a concoction of Deerhunter’s affecting pop melodicism, Perfume Genius’ immersive grandeur, Father John Misty’s inviting folk and other ingredients. It’s hard not to sway along to his largely piano-based, string-laden pop songs, but they also take unexpected turns, which cast Harwood as some sort of left-field folk songwriter or baroque pop madman. But first and foremost, despite the occasional melodies or vocal arrangements that go against the grain, these are songs with immediate appeal, which is a somewhat foreign concept for Harwood, who previously released ambient music as Ken Park, and whose previous Scott Hardware projects could be described as prickly dance-pop and electronic-infused baroque pop, respectively.
“Ever since the first record I’ve ever made on my own, there’s been a process of me playing something and being like, ‘No, that’s too cheesy,’ or ‘That’s too obtuse’ or ‘That’s too overt,’” Harwood says. “[Now] it’s a process of me saying that and doing it anyway. [My music’s] been getting progressively more likable or democratic or something, and I’m really into that. When I heard [these songs] back finally, it made me happy that my grandma could like them, or that I could show up anywhere and play these and maybe win people over.”
Harwood’s new songs could simply be classified as pop ballads, but interestingly, he describes his latest record as “experimental adult contemporary,” which listeners get a taste of with the twinkly piano and brief jazz scatting on album opener “Summer,” the swoon-inducing refrain on “Metaterranean” or the pacifying saxophone solos on “Underdog.” It’s moments like these when you can imagine Harwood as a soft rock star, a lounge singer with a sparkle in his eye, or an irresistible Morrissey-like frontman without all the fascism. These tracks also share a lot in common with the unabashedly ambitious and earnest songcraft of ’00s rock, which fell out of fashion, but has reemerged in recent years—take for example Black Country, New Road’s laborious second album, or the aggressively good-natured rock of Gang of Youths. You can feel Harwood’s choruses reach for something truly moving, as the elegant backing instrumentals float and soothe—the type of music you might hear from a live band as you dine on a picturesque street corner.
Initially, Harwood envisioned this album as a mixture of “dirty Sonic Youth, no wave style guitars,” Judy Garland, Jacques Brel and piano-playing ‘80s singer/songwriters, but instead he decided to follow the songs where they took him, and grow into his identity as a singer/songwriter. “There would have been a time where if somebody had described me as a singer/songwriter, I suppose I wouldn’t have liked that,” Harwood says. “It would have conjured images of things I didn’t like—like that middle-of-the-road, acoustic instruments singer/songwriter-ness. But it is essentially the truth. It’s what I am.”
The “tryhard” in Harwood’s album title is something of a reference to himself. He says a lot of painstaking work went into both his vocal craft and emotional growth, but the songs themselves practically landed in his lap. The tracks that would make up his third album Ballad of a Tryhard were crafted in Spain, which is where he found himself after a tragedy in his boyfriend’s family. Not long after, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and Harwood was suddenly stuck inside for an extended period of time. At first, he thought he would make 10 records with all that time, but soon he ended up “watching TV and laying down all day.” However, creativity eventually struck him at nighttime, and after a few months of sitting at his piano and roaming the empty streets of Elche, Spain (“You could hear a pin drop”) with his demos, Harwood had an album on his hands.
“My partner would go to bed around 11,” Harwood recalls, “and I would fire up my piano and just play, play, play. But it didn’t feel constructive. I wasn’t trying to lock verses to choruses or anything like that, but I turned around one day, and [the songs had] been done in those wee hours of the night, over the course of a couple months of me having literally just watched every piece of trash [on TV] on planet Earth.” The only seed that Harwood began these writing sessions with was one of joy and sincerity, but soon, he was off to the races.
“I remember I was trying to write optimistic music,” Harwood explains. “That was at the front of my brain, but whatever came after was all subconscious. I wanted to make something optimistic, and it wasn’t just about COVID. It was about someone I love hurting, and about everything that transpired over those months—in the world and in my own life … I find joy done well to be a really difficult thing in art—in a painting, in a poem, in a song, in a film. I made an effort to shoot for that. It was a challenge to myself, philosophically, and then also as an artist, to do something that could uplift me, my family, my loved ones, a listener.”
Harwood has accomplished a lot, both artistically and emotionally, but the main reason he sees himself as a “tryhard” is because of certain self-perceptions. “There’s a very pure, whiny place in my soul that is negative and critical,” Harwood says. “Also there’s something about a tryhard, like that person with things that just don’t come easy—belonging, or love, or just comfort in spaces. That is a part of my personality. But I think with this record, over the course of it, I have waved goodbye to a big part of it.”
On songs like “Summer” and “Bootleg,” Harwood turns down opportunities for romanticized nostalgia, while on “Another Day Ending” and “Is Something Wrong Tonight?,” he expresses a desire to marinate in the present moment. Not only do these songs have a sonic ease, but Harwood’s lyrics also suggest a growing comfort in his own skin. His previous album, 2020’s Engel, exemplified the trenches of shame he had fallen into, and it was marked by a self-imposed emotional distance. The album was heavily inspired by the 1980s German film Wings of Desire, and it used angels as a device to eavesdrop on his own thoughts and those of his loved ones, rather than expressing those feelings directly. It was characterized by the ugly sides of vulnerability, like the awful but necessary work of turning yourself inside out (depicted literally on the album cover) and identifying your issues. With Ballad of a Tryhard, Harwood finally gets to experience the beautiful side of vulnerability and reap the benefits of it. Just as he disarmed his experimental urges in order to write pop songs, he is now writing lyrics, without judgment, about the joys of romance (“Love Through the Trees”), singing (“Sing Like That”) and pretty scenery (“Dentera”).
Similarly, the depictions of queerness in his work have evolved in interesting and natural ways over time. His first record, 2016’s Mutate Repeat Infinity, addressed the HIV/AIDS crisis and the resilience of the queer community at large, while Engel explored the escapist urges and shame that come with young queerness. In contrast, Harwood describes Ballad of a Tryhard as “pan-human,” and although he’s “very proud to be a part of a queer canon of music,” he found himself writing “everyday songs” that weren’t necessarily about only himself. All over this record, you can hear Harwood coming into his own and bravely following his art wherever it takes him, and it’s just as empowering for the listener. The rest of that aforementioned lyric about the world ending reads, “Everyone says to just run faster / But I built this house of sweet perfume and flowers / I’m not going nowhere,” and it’s hard to imagine many people who don’t need a reminder of that sentiment.
In an interview from his previous album campaign, Harwood said his music always reveals things to himself after the fact, but given his shift towards more direct, candid lyricism, he’s not sure if he will uncover a whole lot about Ballad of a Tryhard’s songs later on. “It’s either too early to say, or I’m not as repressed anymore, so I already know what’s going on,” Harwood says with a laugh. “I don’t think there’s much mystery to these lyrics, at least for me. I think my subconscious has caught up to the front of my brain and my emotions. They all move together this time.”
The more Harwood talks about the emotional breakthroughs he experienced in the years since his previous album was written, the more that smoldering raffinate tank feels like a fitting image to pair with this album. “I don’t know if everybody would see it or relate the two right away, but these men putting out this massive fire, [they’re] almost literal tryhards,” Harwood says. “Something about these very dutiful men who all work in these plastic factories, in [an area with] the highest cancer rate in North America, just rushing into the fire, like, ‘Pick me, coach.’”
Ballad of a Tryhard is out now via Telephone Explosion Records. Purchase the album here.
Lizzie Manno is a music writer, Coldplay apologist, bread lover and Spongebob memer. She’s a former Paste editor, with bylines at Stereogum, Billboard, Flood Magazine, The Recording Academy and Cleveland Scene. Follow her on Twitter @LizzieManno