Aldous Harding: Party

The Kiwi songstress returns with a wild and forceful second full-length. Offering more of the actual Aldous than ever before, is that maybe too much?

- My enduring memory of Aldous Harding's debut is one of deception. The Kiwi songstress' gothic-folk would unexpectedly lacerate the listener with harsh, jagged edges, then as quickly cover everything up with lushly orchestrated country worthy of Loretta Lynn. She stared at you blankly from the album art and it was unnerving: that look gave you nothing, you had no idea what would be coming next.

Seeing her live added a new dimension and it was the most confronting yet. Playing an industry showcase at Bigsound she kinda had a meltdown, lashing out at the audience and herself, fuming “why would you turn out to see something so shit!?” The moodiness was out of control.

If anything that sense of electric uncertainty is even stronger on Harding's new album, Party. The recent, notable singles Horizon and Imagining My Man are … savage? How much folk music is savage? The backing instrumentation is muted and Harding's voice floods out, charged with pain. Just look at her in the video for Horizon, made up like a drowned corpse and grating out “Here is your princess!” That would be enough without more directly disturbing portents like “Every now and then, I think about when you'll die, babe.” The harshly emotive qualities are often reminiscent of the expressive gestures of PJ Harvey, which, in part, is surely due to the presence of regular Harvey producer and collaborator John Parish, who is doing both things here as well.

While Harding's vocals do often stray into PJ Harvey territory they surely don't stay there. She modulates the timbre of her sound in a highly mannered fashion and to a remarkable degree. Check out that second single for evidence: she starts out sounding a bit like Nico except with a mouth full of marbles only to launch into wild flights in her upper register that tear through like the wail of a banshee. It's quite alarming and that doesn't even address the background yells from some weird Greek chorus shriekng “hey!” and “yes!” to help you get into the mood, I guess? Apparently the backing vocals are the work of the gently beautiful Mike Hadreas of Perfume Genius, but you'd struggle to hear them behind Harding's wild-eyed performance.

I guess it shouldn't be surprising that there are very different things, all through Party. Opener Blend throws out all the vocal terror in favour of a gently beautiful murmur and trundles in a drum machine, of all things. This tiny slice of folktronica is unlike anything else on the record and, I'll be honest, a much more obvious choice for a single than some that have been given the nod; bless Aldous for taking the road less travelled. Living The Classics is roughly the same thing, but sans drum machine and with yet another vocal impression, here Harding borrows the intensely elongated vowels of Tori Amos; she indulges an immensely satisfying (and, I'm guessing quite sarcastic) daydream of success: “Living the classeeeecs” she purrs.

There are still more though, Harding returns to the bright nasally twang that there was quite a lot of on her first full-length, doing another passable Joanna Newsom impression on the title track, shrilly acclaiming “I was as happy as I'll ever be.” These variegated vocal performances are intimately linked to Harding's different moods and amplify them, to alarming effect.

Perhaps I'm not being adventurous enough, but I feel like the album is best in some of its most muted moments – when Harding isn't lashing out everything comes together, gently, warmly, perfectly: I'm So Sorry and The World Is Looking For You both achieve this in their contemplative tones.

Party is an intensive exercise: a stripped back, deeply personal and sometimes uncomfortable experience. I feel like you get to meet much more of the real Aldous Harding and that's unsettling. Well, rummage deep enough in anyone's personal belongings and it'll probably get a bit strange. Given that the singles are often -to me- the strangest, most jagged bits of the record, If feel … maybe, I don't get it? Whatever, I'll say the obvious thing, it's Aldous' party and she's clearly doing what she wants.

- Chris Cobcroft.

 

Album Details

Album Title: Party
Artist: Aldous Harding
Record Label: (4AD / Remote Control)