In German director Wim Wenders’s classic 1987 film Wings of Desire, two angels sail above Berlin, watching from a distance, touching down occasionally to observe humanity up close. No matter how much they learn from watching the public go about their daily lives, the angels remain mostly unnoticed and separate from society, walled off from ever being able to truly be a part of what they’re seeing unfold.
Avant-pop Toronto songwriter Scott Hardware can relate. On his latest album, Engel—which is the German word for ”angel”—he grapples with his own feelings of detachment. The album is both a continuation and a refinement of the perspective he brought to 2016’s Mutate Repeat Infinity, which addresses the HIV/AIDS crisis through a macro lens as a way for Hardware to understand his own relationship to it as a queer millennial. With its pared-down instrumentation, Engel feels a lot more personal, rooting these songs in a new sense of intimacy and raw severity
“I think I was unraveling a little bit,” Hardware says. “My shrink would tell you that over the last 10 years I had one way of being, which is how I survived. But it meant not allowing a lot of feelings through, and certainly not showing them.”
Engel functions as a sort of personal exorcism, which Hardware describes as “all of these emotions just blasted into a ‘this is life’ tableau.” Chris Curreri’s terrifying cover art reflects the album’s core themes—the body-horror image suggests an outpouring of chaotic vulnerability. Hardware lets everything out in his songs, exploring power dynamics, insecurity, emotional distance and grief.
“Blu Again” offers a continuous explosion of melody, with Hardware’s vocal and guitar lines endlessly hooky, as he expresses feelings of longing—realizing the fleeting nature of every moment, and realizing he’s not present enough to enjoy them. “I remember I was seeing somebody and thinking ‘I’m supposed to feel something,’” he says. That sense of disconnection turns up again in “Joy.” Hardware sings in an urgent, freewheeling style, over swelling strings and insistent piano, about seeing people experience joy all around him, but never feeling that way himself. “I think when I was writing it, I was frustrated. I felt like I’ve seen people experience highs and lows but there was just a jealousy [toward] people who felt a lot,” he says. “What else can I do? Is it religion, is it sex? Are these things going to lead me to what people keep telling me about?”
Hardware credits therapy with helping him work through some of these issues. “You think you’re over it in your 20’s, and you’re like ‘Great! I’m queer, my parents know about it, I’m sleeping with people, having relationships, I got over it!’ And I really thought I did,” he explains. “But there’s an unlearning that you don’t even know you have to do, that’s the frustrating thing, and that’s what I think the therapy community and beyond would call shame. We just don’t even know that we’re being repressive.”
Both the album’s intro and title track helped Hardware when the same distancing he explores on the record began interfering with his ability to write. “I would just crumple up every idea for years,” he says. Writing Engel, he learned to be less critical of his first drafts, seeing them as launching points rather than failures. “You can’t just throw shit out. It’s a constant stopping, and you never know what the next thing might have been if you keep throwing stuff in the garbage.” Arriving early in the writing process, “Intro” and “Engel” functioned as musical engines for Hardware, cementing his aesthetics, which he describes as somewhere between Detroit techno mainstays Drexciya and the twisted baroque pop of Scott Walker (“Engel” is also Walker’s real last name; he was born Noel Scott Engel).
Just as Hardware’s perspective presents different lives, worlds, and feelings that flow from one to the next, he treats varying genres and styles as if they’re all interconnected. “Kate Bush, David Bowie, Lou Reed—these monsters of aesthetics made records later in their career that have a sound you can’t pin down. They can only reference themselves because they’re so iconic,” he says. In that same way, Engel is after a sound that’s uniquely his own. Far from the dancefloor-oriented Mutate Repeat Infinity, the music on Engel is warped and often dreamlike, dramatically shifting from lush abstract sounds on “Intro” to honeyed vocal pop studies like “Millionaire” and back again. “This record, in terms of the music, it was like a thesis to me—at one end of the spectrum is the electronic cold monotony, the other is Scott Walker in the late ‘60s. I saw this throughline of integrity and expression from one to the other.”
Hardware recalls his shock when he held the completed album in his hands for the first time. Seeing the entire package wrapped in Curreri’s art after spending months assembling it piecemeal was alarming. “I was like, ‘Damn, was I okay?’ But it’s always worked like that—where my music has revealed things to me after the fact,” he says. Just as therapy helped reframe how much unlearning there was left for him to do in life, Engel is the sound of Scott Hardware turning that questioning spirit and impulse toward himself through his art, and enriching both in the process.