"I think about how I felt when I wrote the songs and I try to remember that. If I don’t have that, I’m screwed.” So says Aldous Harding, in talking about her startling stage persona, one which features facial contortions, bodily unrest, and what appears to include demonic possession.
You've got to admit the chutzpah in calling your album 'Party'. For those who have come across this New Zealander they’ll know that her music is anything but what we would call party music. But for Harding, despite the heightened dramatic tones and slow paced gothic atmosphere of much of this, her second album, she does feel somewhat in the party spirit. That is, compared to her first album, which was strewn with grim and gory gothic fairy tales, which eventaully caught the attention of 4AD who are behind this release. In comparison to that debut Harding is positively blooming with love and happiness. But, you wouldn't necessarily cotton on to that when listening to the deep purity and gutteral nature of her voice, nor even some of the lyrics which require second or third readings to ascertain at least some of their meaning. When on stage, she looks possessed, to the point of theatricality. You don't have that on record obviously, but you get a strong sense of it via the constant changes in voice she employs; from ghoulish girlish tones to a deeply resonating Nico, and from super-hushed sweet nothing whispers to a heightened confrontational tone. There is quite possibly a sly playfulness to all of this, but it would be crass to suggest that it is all exaggerated for effect.
Harding has been on record as saying she has suffered breakdowns and psychosis, and her self-titled debut reflected that. Probably smoking weed (which she has publicly admitted to) hasn't helped. There's a residue of the 'stoner folk' on Party that was a feature of that debut, such as on the quite possibly dope induced psychosis of 'What If Birds Aren’t Singing, They’re Screaming'.
Produced by PJ Harvey sidekick John Parrish over an intense two week spell in Bristol, and featuring a number of songs that have been in her live set for some time, Party is largely founded on the twin pillars of folk and gothic, underpinned by a musical fluidity that stems from Harding's largely fingerpicked acoustic guitar playing, or sparse but repetitive piano chords. Thanks to her eclectic and unpredictable voice, Party is, despite the almost invariably sparse and minimalist musicality, a diverse record. Each of its nine tracks mostly well differentiated from each other.
From the off, though, it's a slighty warped journey into the soul of Harding. Lead track 'Blend' is somewhat of a deceptive opener: the gentle psych-folk glow is accompanied by clanking electronic beats, simple percussion, double bass, otherworldly old school space effects and a recurring acoustic motif, as Harding sings about her perfect man, the blend being just right. In this case, as she has said on stage, it's about her father. She then digs deeper with 'Imagining My Man'. Here, there's a tenderness, and even a little humour, despite the deep chanteuese-style register deployed, broken up by the occasional and startling 'hey!' and Harding's sudden vocal shifts upwards. While on the extraordinary title track, love is again the prime subject matter as Harding sings, "“If there is a party will you wait for me. I was as happy as I will ever be." She doesn't sound it. Indeed she sounds fearful and needy. But nevertheless it sounds like previously unexplored depths of the soul where our deepest fears, anxieties and, of course, love reside. It's a place we are very rarely able to shine a light on. Harding, to her immense credit, is fearless when doing just that. Moreover, and rather welcoming too, all this folk-noir is beautifully tempered by some vibrato bass clarinet, a feature of the album, and which provides the right dose of warmth to thaw the chilly vibes.
Then there's the almost frightening 'Horizon'. Screw so-called Death or Doom Metal. Harding packs more deathly musicality and thoughts into one song than any cartoon viking poseur you could care to mention. And it's all achieved via a very slow, repetitive, subtly intensifying series of piano chords. This brutal simplicity is mirrored by the grim lyricism: "And every now and then, I think about when you’ll die, babe / There’s a fall in my head, It floods what you said into the room, babe". Interestingly, the accompanying video features a central role for her mum.
The final track, the deeply sparse psyche-folk vibe of 'Swell Does the Skull' is also about being in some kind of love. But to whom or what is difficult to pinpoint. Mostly it's just voice and guitar (with added tones provided by The Perfume Garden's Mike Hadreus), it's equally gorgeous and dark, moody yet glowing. It's what Harding does so well, and with such incredible conviction, and yes, drama.