If no-one demanding any fragment of you is a form of artistic liberation, then Tammy Haider is fully liberated. Fifteen years ago, when she was the other half of royalchord with Eliza Hiscox, I used to think somewhat reductive things like, “genuinely, they are the Go-betweens of the 21st century” (even though a version of the Go-betweens were still filling that role). Yet look at royalchord’s three albums; the simplicity of I Gave You a Mountain; the fermented and nuanced genre piece Nights on the Town; and the last masterpiece, the ‘indie rock, synth-pop’ The Good Fight. Unlike Forster and McLennan, you could never tell which were the Haider songs and which the Hiscox. It wasn’t really important anyway, because as a unit they were so solid, augmenting themselves with serious bearded male musicians (and the amazing Liz Turner on drums) who they surely never hired nor fired because there wasn’t the slightest smell of money around to do either. But as a duo, Haider and Hiscox were unbelievably ambitious. They ordered their lives around their music.
Watching from a distance, royalchord were always enigmatic to me, but I could never quite get where they were coming from. It wasn’t hard in terms of their superficial influences, I got that, at least for the early records – Calexico, Pernice Brothers etc. Then later they were more inspired by the technology they used: sampler keyboards and the like. What I didn’t get was how they saw themselves being seen and heard. What was their grand ambition? I knew they had ‘it’. I just didn’t know what ‘it’ looked like.
The move to Berlin eventually spelt the death of royalchord. Tammy’s return to Melbourne a few years ago to be a solo artist was, it is now clear, the best thing that could have happened to her or us; little shows around Melbourne; a short EP and, later, an album; uncertainty about whether it’s worth carrying on when people, beyond some friends and old followers, aren’t that interested. Yet ‘interest’ is just as qualifiable as it is quantifiable: I’m part of a small percentage who believe Haider is one of the great pop balladeers of our time and place.
The One is crystalline, minimal pop where even the simplest knowledge of the genre prompts us to commit both the fallacy, and necessity, of ‘filling in’ the missing elements, simply by referencing the pop tropes we’ve come to expect. The first three songs make an artisanal showcase: ‘Magnetic Pull’ sees the Beach Boys break into the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and is followed by ‘Used to be Easy’ which, had Paul McCartney pulled this out at his Melbourne shows last year, would have casued a crushed at the merch stall. ‘Are We Gonna Make It’ is the closest of all to classic 60s Top 40 (perhaps as experienced by someone who made this connection via Travelling Wilburys – no judgment, all due respect!).
The pop tendency of the album does what pop music does best; it talks about love and its failures. Here I think of ‘Rare Lemonade’ and how its sad, lilting nature reads like some miserable person’s favourite memory of a failed holiday romance. I also think of ‘Stormy Bay’, arguably the most powerful and dynamic track on the record, partly for its gravitas and fragile fluidity, and partly for its short-short story nature. Full of allusions, it is both world-weary and heartbroken – it lets you indulge the sentiment without being sentimental.
I have no insight into Tammy’s life and whether she has the kind of relationship crises she sings about. Yet the truth of the songs’ claims and narratives are not necessary for the purposes of great pop songwriting. Orwell, failing to disguise his own bourgeois-distilled contempt for the proletariat, once wrote of a male protagonist who hears a worker woman sing a piece of maudlin doggerel; the type that’s calculated to keep the people distracted from perspective on problems and their causes. This isn’t Tammy’s thing per se, but it is something that pop music does for us: lego-like, sad songs can seem purpose-fit for indulging plain, human misery. These songs are focused on the purely personal, prompting guilt that we should be more into the obviously political. Yet it’s also because of the album’s personal focus that the core meaning of ‘Are We Gonna Make It’ is something I get: a little bit older, a little bit tougher to connect in a relationship, a little bit more cynical not only about people, but about people finding anything that lasts.
Now take a song like ‘Don’t Exist’, which is a cover of Jess Locke’s song from 2015. It makes lyrical statements that no-one wants to fess up to: things about death, acceptance and disappearance. At times I almost believe it’s Tammy’s wish to lie down and disappear. If this is ‘authenticity’ then it’s a special sort: the song is the only non-original on the album, but it fits perfectly.
Yet it’s the album closer ‘I’ve Had Enough of This Life’ that demands most attention. It’s a song that many others would drench in strings, but which Haider strips back to a very upfront and virtually a capella ballad, against a simple but calculated backing, telling us everything we need to know about her matter-of-fact, yet ultimately depressive, state of mind (or the singer’s, at least).
The One is deceptively and artlessly simple, mainly because Haider is not afraid to go minimal to the point of shy: her recordings almost seem naïve in their quietude. Ultimately she is a craftsperson whose songs duck and weave with purpose. The One is pop music at its peak. It’s the under-appreciated as liberated.
Independent release November 2017
David Nichols is an academic teaching in urban planning history at the University of Melbourne. His most recent book was Dig! Australian rock and pop 1960-1985 (Verse Chorus Press, 2016) and the co-edited Cultural Sustainability in Rural Communities (Routledge, 2017).