Nick Bollinger reviews Party, the new album by rising New Zealand star Aldous Harding.
Aldous Harding’s self-titled debut might have been the most alien-sounding album ever to come of Lyttelton. Her music seemed to come from a misty semi-mythological world of her own. For the follow-up she recorded in Bristol, on the other side of the world. Does she sound any more at home there?
'Imagining My Man’, initially heard in March when it was released as a single, was the first indicator that a change of location was not going to change the essential strangeness of Harding’s music. Here she uses her Berlin cabaret voice; all very Lotte Lenya, at least until it’s interrupted by those weird munchkin cries in the chorus. But it’s just one of several different skins she inhabits on Party.
The title track presents another voice altogether: young and brittle, a voice that can make pleasure sound like fear, as it sings of being ‘as happy as I’ve ever been’.
But such contrasts and contradictions are the stuff this music is made of. Harding comes close to summing up that weird polarity in a song she calls ‘What If Birds Aren’t Singing They’re Screaming’.
Harding recorded the album with the Bristol-based producer John Parrish, a multi-instrumentalist best known for his work with PJ Harvey, and it is apparent is that Parrish hasn’t simply stamped a trademark ‘sound’ on Harding’s songs. Rather, any embellishments seem to grow directly out of Harding’s music, and are often small details. In this music, small details can count for a lot.
Voices really are the primary instrument on this record; not just Harding’s own – and she has a number of them – but also those of guests like Mike Hadreas, the artist known as Perfume Genius, who joins in glorious duet on ‘Swell Does The Skull’. (This video performance is live at City Gallery, Wellington - without Perfume Genius)
The dramatic leaps from softness to harshness, the different voices and personalities; there’s a sense of theatre about Party, which subverts the typical notion of the singer-songwriter as confessor and beacon of authenticity.
And yet there may be more of the personal in these songs than at first appears. Dig in and you will find a lot of the same romantic travails and existential questions other singer-songwriters fill their journals with. Harding’s gift is her ability to skew the ordinary so it becomes exotic.
As personal as any is the song she calls ‘Living The Classics’ in which she seems to be facing up to her ambitions, confessing that she wants to ‘grab hold of her future’, and – in the softest of all her voices – seems to be giving herself permission to enjoy some of the success her astonishing music has found so far.
Party is available on 4AD