Peering out beneath the peak of a blue baseball cap, Christchurch, New Zealand’s Aldous Harding cut a fairly unassuming figure on the sleeve of her 2014 debut. Often tagged – and by the artist herself – as ‘gothic folk’, the music inside was brittle, spartan and, in places, beautiful.
There was darkness, and hints of the fantastic – particularly on the brace of songs named for Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy – but Harding’s voice was an eerie, feather-light thing, with raw, quavering hints of Kate Bush, Melanie Safka or Jessica Pratt’s unearthly warble.
Now signed to 4AD – an ideal home for such a spectral and distinctive sound – Party is unmistakeably darker in hue. That cover shot of Harding for instance: a sepulchral glow behind a dusty veil, her eyes little more than smears.
Beginning typically, with a rolling classical guitar and a melancholy, whispered plea of a vocal, full of oblique asides (“I really need you back again…somewhere, I have a watercolour you did”), the opening Blend quickly ups the tension with the tick-tick-punch of a drum machine and faint, alien shimmers of electronics. It’s these extra elements, these extra colours in the palette, which set Party apart from Harding’s debut, along with a marked difference to her singing style, all evident from the remarkable second track, Imaging My Man.
An octave down, Harding’s voice takes on a rich, smooth, but icily deadpan quality. The absolute clarity with which she picks through the verse, over-punctuating (“It can be, so hard, to forgive/It’s not what I thought. And it’s not what I pictured.”) over calm, circling piano chords in the verse, contrasts with the almost jarringly joyous chorus – complete with backing yelps of “Hey!” and “Yes!” – her lines, almost imperceptibly, doubled by Mike Hadreas (aka Perfume Genius). And when you think you know where she’s taking you, she’ll jump back up in range, taking her time over single, piercing lines (“If you get dooo-ooown”), which burst the tranquil bubble (a trick repeated on the high, heady interjection in I’m So Sorry).
The gorgeous dual saxophone lines at the end are provided by multi-instrumentalist Enrico Gabrielli, a member of PJ Harvey’s band. Harvey’s longtime collaborator John Parish produced Party with Harding, bringing her over to Bristol for the sessions, and the partnership has added layers of detail and colour to the songs which often belie the stark, unsettling imagery within.
Both Harding and her lyrics resist easy explanation, and humorous fragments – a passage in Living the Classics about wanting to “take Mom to Paris” and “jump on the big beds”, or the rambling, pondering What If Birds Aren’t Singing, They’re Screaming – jostle for focus with disquieting, solitary lines. Party’s opening “He took me to a clearing/the grass was warm/and the air was soft” could be to a love song or a murder ballad, while Horizon starts with a biblical gravity – “Let me put the water in the bowl for your wounds, babe”. And the closing Swell Does The Skull, although abstract and inscrutable, is the nearest she gets to a straightforward confessional (“Don’t want to be a sinner/but Bourbon… always Bourbon”), while also being the closest in style to her debut.
Shifting moods and voices effortlessly, Harding is an often technically astonishing performer, and Party is a work of quiet power. An inviting, captivating darkness.