Words by Kate Lockyer
Australian duo Holy Holy today releases their fifth album ‘Cellophane’, a project which features a spate of collaborations with artists from across the world. The duo was created as a long-distance musical love affair between singer Timothy Carroll and guitarist/producer Oscar Dawson, and they have an impressive legacy already. The pair met as teenagers volunteering in Thailand, noticing from across the room in a busy restaurant that they each had a guitar in hand. Now, there are gold and platinum records up on their walls, songs littered throughout triple j’s Hottest 100, and four studio albums that have all reached the upper echelon of the ARIA album charts. ‘Cellophane’ marks a departure from their previous sound, but it is certainly no less exciting.
Dreamlike Neon St sounds exactly as you would picture from the song’s title – iridescent synths bring out the feeling of wandering through an avenue of hazy neon lights. A song that evokes an overexposed photograph of a relationship, where they are unable to figure out where to go next and over each other’s company. A steady ticking and cyclical synth pattern put me in mind of a ticking clock as they sing, “We got too much time.” The track features Ethiopian-Australian neo-soul musician Medhanit.
Pretend To Be has a bouncier beat, featuring production flourishes from Bag Raiders. It showcases what Holy Holy does best – creating an entrancing, pleasurable-to-the-ear hook that loops through the song like a hypnotic spiral that draws you in effortlessly. From Holy Holy’s guitar-driven and folk-oriented early days, the sound of ‘Cellophane’ is the farthest the duo have strayed from their origins yet, full of driven vocal runs and an electric undercurrent.
But for Carroll and Dawson, ‘Cellophane’ is less about pop and more about a different P-word: Perspective. “Cellophane is brightly-coloured plastic, and in one sense it’s basically just throwaway crap,” says Dawson. “At the same time, though, when you hold it up to a light it can actually be kind of beautiful. For us, naming the record after it was about the juxtaposition between music that’s organic and grounded in emotion and music that’s computer-generated and danceable.”
Indeed, This Time is utterly danceable, with a catchy contribution from Gumbaynggirr multi-hyphenate Tasman Keith. A quickfire staccato verse starts off, as they describe all of the rush of excitement felt in meeting someone new and the many possibilities that brings. The lyrical pace slows as they reach the chorus to sing “You feel like I can’t let go / And you feel like I can’t say no” – perhaps these are the emotions that linger in your mind after the initial rush.
Heroes is a woeful rumination on broken promises, which always cut idealists deep. It feels like a dual story, of a relationship that was bound to decay, but also of a generation born into a world that has so many systemic issues despite being, on the surface level, filled with material prosperity. It seems clear in these lines – “We were heroes born to take a broken world to heart / wherever she goes, the picture breaks, her image falls apart”. Perth newcomer Darcie Haven’s vocals adds a layer of sucrose innocence to the lyrics. From the idolatry of Heroes to the regret of Messed Up, Holy Holy is not shying away from that perfect ingredient for a hit – heartbreak. There is a reason Messed Up was the first track to be unveiled from Holy Holy’s fifth album. It is gritty, relatable, and a perfectly polished pop bop, Carroll’s smoothed-over vocals contrasting with Kwame’s husky voice.
Holy Holy are quick to note that ‘Cellophane’ is the sound of the duo shedding their inhibitions and alleviating themselves of the weight of expectation. “In the past, this band has had a really considered approach,” says Carroll. “This time, I feel like Oscar and I have made an album where each song is really allowed to be exactly what it wants to be. We didn’t force anything. I was really excited about the idea of letting go of being concerned of what other people would think, and really just trusting ourselves.” Dawson agrees: “Music can be counter-intuitive sometimes,” he muses. “Sometimes when you don’t work as hard, better stuff happens because of it. A lot of this album is frictionless, and that’s where the magic is.”
The next track, Two Minds, Two Days, Two Mornings, is echoey and reflective. It’s hard to tell what the song is about with such ambiguous lyrics as “In an empty morning, here with only time / In an empty moment, fear what you could write”. Come for the rippling guitar and magnetic synth, stay for the vibes. Oh, and for the tones of London rapper Tia Carys, who features as well.
Much of the spirit of ‘Cellophane’ as an album stems from its collaborative nature. Though ‘Hello My Beautiful World’ also featured several guests, there are a whopping seven tracks on the album that include features – the most on any Holy Holy album by a considerable margin. “We formulated this idea of Holy Holy as this kind of songwriting factory,” says Carroll of the album’s extensive collaborations. “What would happen if we got a day or two with all of these really talented and really interested people, wrap around them and create something cool together? We really enjoyed the process, and we loved getting to know all these different artists. It became like a family, and it creates a tapestry that’s so rich and so exciting to us.”
As for Dawson, he views the album’s extensive features list as something that could have only come at this exact point in Holy Holy’s career – it’s a product of the duo’s decade-plus partnership. “I don’t think we would have been ready if we tried something like this on an earlier album,” he says. “We’ve made a lot of progress, especially as songwriters – we’ve been really able to narrow in on a musical idea and get a real feel for a song. After making most of ‘Hello My Beautiful World’ on our own because of COVID, it was so nice to be able to get together with people in a room and make music together again. The stuff we did with Kwame and Tasman just wouldn’t have been the same if we weren’t bouncing ideas off one another, shooting the shit and having fun. If I were to unify all of these collaborations, I’d say that they all came really easily.”
For fans of their old work, People Change sounds most like the duo’s previous creations, with a driving beat, bright guitars and a soaring, cascading chorus that calls out to the listener with their echoey vocals. The high energy, but not the overall sound, is continued with Ready and Ready (coda) charged with an 80s montage-scene pop style and Tasmanian electronica duo Sumner coming through with the assist. Vocal harmonies in “I just want to stay all night,” keep me coming back for more, no matter how many times they might repeat that line.
Can’t Relate is about a lack of connection and commitment from a partner, singing “Don’t make me beg and cry / I couldn’t make you fake it, make you stay”. Rosé is similarly about a relationship breaking up, but it is much more sentimental, a slow ballad accompanied predominantly by acoustic guitar. “Let’s drink the Rosé, it’s not wrong or right / It’s not what you wanted, but it’s all I can provide,” they sing.
Oh Listener is a quirky one minute interlude where Holy Holy addresses their listener, creating the mood of a live performance recording with crowd cheers and reactions as they croon. The final, and title track, Cellophane, features Swedish bedroom-pop artist Many Voices Speak. The song even includes a verse in Swedish, which is, as you would expect of a Nordic language, soothing to the ear. Cellophane is a massive singalong song – I can picture the phone lights swaying in the auditorium as I listen.
“It’s an album that rewards deep and repeated listening,” concludes Carroll. “That might not seem like the case at first, but from my own experience with Holy Holy fans they’ve really come to intertwine our songs with memories from their own lives. I’m looking forward to seeing what our fans discover in this album, and how they connect with its story,” he said.
‘Cellophane’ the album is as colourful, intriguing, and dependent on how one peers through it as cellophane the item. Holy Holy has obviously had a ball putting the tracks together with their varied collaborators, and this shines through as you listen.
INTIMATE ALBUM RELEASE EVENTS
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Friday 22 September – Altar, Hobart
Saturday 23 September – The Royal Oak, Launceston *SOLD OUT*
Sunday 24 September – The Triffid Beer Garden, Brisbane *SOLD OUT*
Monday 25 September – The Lansdowne, Sydney
Tuesday 26 September – Howler, Melbourne
Wednesday 27 September – Lion Arts Factory, Adelaide
With thanks to Sony Music Australia