Innovation can be a difficult thing to get right. Experiment too much and you risk diluting an album’s focus; too little and the results can be over familiar. Although ostensibly a folk-tinged singer-songwriter, New Zealand’s Aldous Harding is an artist with a far more individualist approach than that tag would suggest. On ‘Party’, the follow up to 2014’s self titled debut, Harding explores a wholly unique sound – more in line with fringe art-rock than standard singer-songwriter fare, only occasionally straying into more conventionally folk territory.
Both lyrically and musically, Harding has an idiosyncratic slant that sets her apart from her contemporaries by its very nature. Even from the opening bars of ‘Party’ it becomes clear that, while Harding does possess the streak of emotional honesty synonymous with confessional folk singers, her musical attitude is deeply rooted in experimentalism – sometimes to the point of hinting at the avant-garde.
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Album opener ‘Blend’ serves as a statement of intent as much as anything. The song may have it’s basis in delicately picked guitar and exposed high register vocals; but the the grainy, ominous drums that drift into being some 30 seconds into the song give ‘Blend’ an atmosphere of disquiet and low-level anxiety rather than calm. It’s a continuous thread throughout ‘Party’ – although the instrumentation and Harding’s vocals are frequently beautiful there’s always an unexpected touch, either musically or lyrically, that twists her songs into something altogether darker than first expected.
‘Party’s tendency to inflect its so often stunningly vivid arrangements with a twinge of something more eerie is one of the album’s key strengths and a major source of its character. The title track is a gorgeous highlight and the album’s strongest moment; what starts off as dejected soon swells to something quietly magnificent. However, it’s the disconcertingly abstract, personal lyrics that give the song a sense of uncertainty and even trepidation. While ‘Party’ is a challenging record in its lyrical and emotional content, it’s certainly not to be taken as an unenjoyable experience – quite the opposite in fact. The album’s dark underbelly enhances the record considerably, adding an extra dimension to an already accomplished set of songs.
The album’s production is another strong point. Produced by John Parish, ‘Party’ has the same nuanced, quietly rich production that permeated his work with Sparklehorse some 15 years ago. There’s a clarity to the way in which the album is presented that gives the songs due room to breathe, allowing Harding’s creativity to flourish. ‘Party’ is nothing if not creative, too; ‘Imagining My Man’ may hint as something like a tradition piano ballad but totally unexpected stabs of backing vocal and a throbbing, woozy brass drone at the end of the song keep it from ever risking normality – a definite positive, as it’s eccentricities are the very thing that make it so compelling.
Likewise, the dramatic piano chords of ‘Horizon’, though affecting, are nothing dramatically unusual but the song’s ominous swells of string and brass give a wholly unanticipated twist that lets the piece soar. There are moments when Harding moves away from stylised art-rock towards something at least approximating traditional folk/singer-songwriter material. The hushed ‘Living The Classics’ hints at Elliott Smith in its intricately flowing fingerstyle guitar part and quietly glowing aura, whilst the fragile elegance of ‘The World Is Looking For You’ is completely unadorned past its double-tracked vocals and quietly meandering guitar. The song has such a bright-eyed clarity to it that, despite its bare-bones presentation, it never risks losing the attention of the listener.
It’s the small touches of creativity and unexpected inflections that make ‘Party’ standout from the crowd. In a busy genre, Aldous Harding is a unique figure with a clear, singular musical vision and identity. Dark, unpredictable and compelling, ‘Party’ is an album that demands attention and any time given over to it is well invested.