Every month, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is Party, the second album from New Zealand songwriter Aldous Harding.
There’s been a lot of fire albums out in the last couple of weeks, but in the mania of Hot New Summer Releases, we’d like to revisit one we all overlooked in May. Partially because it took me this long to ingest Aldous Harding’s poetic complexities. And partially because it’s perfect for when the heat and humidity has been seeping in ears and into your brain for over a month now, and you have no choice but to melt into some gorgeous goth-folk to pull you out of insanity—or further into it.
There’s something uncanny about Party, like having a feeling there isn’t really a word for—feeling something strong, familiar, only to arrive at the loneliness of having no way to articulate it. Too often, language alone feels reductive. Isn’t that why people write songs in the first place?
Harding’s second full-length release both creates and remedies this exact sensation. These songs—bare, honest, kind of odd—feel like a confident articulation in the only possible way they could exist. “I don’t really like to talk about what my songs are about,” Harding told the New York Times. With the same level of “I don’t give a fuck,” she hilariously understated the song “Blend,” telling NPR it “turned out fine.” She knows these songs speak for themselves more eloquently than she could if she tried, and expresses it with the same honesty as she gives us in her songwriting.
There’s an uncanniness in just her sound alone: a penchant for ancient folk melodies mixed with inventive minimalism strained through a multitude of voices—and an even larger array of energies—that could belong to several different people throughout the record. But Harding can produce them all effortlessly. Controlled, yet endlessly experimental, she skates from low, lulling Joni Mitchell hymns straight into uninhibited Joanna Newsom-esque wails. It’s the rare kind of range on every front that keeps you on your toes. Even when sharing her soundscape—most notably with the chilling vocals of Mike Hadreas (Perfume Genius) on “Imagining My Man” and “Well Does The Skull”—Harding takes the exact space she requires.
Harding’s voice is just one of many double takes inside of Party. While undoubtedly supported by a skeleton of folk, it almost feels inaccurate for Party to exist in a genre often notorious for predictability. Yet, skilled inversion and deconstruction like Harding’s is what always kept folk alive. While minimal, it’s punctuated by drum machines, horns, distant sounds, placed with confident intention. And the shocking uniqueness of her vocal ability alone makes soft and sparse folk a perfect backdrop for her to experiment.
Even the most simple articulations feel reinvented. The title track begins lullaby-soft, strangely infantile (“I looked just 12 / With his thumb in my mouth”) before unhinging like a switch into a rattling cry (“If there is a party / will you wait for me?”), nailing the childlike vulnerability of an intense desperation we so commonly feel in our adult lives. Conversely, Harding musically reduces a dark and panic-inducing abstract thought in “What If Birds Aren’t Singing They’re Screaming” into an eerily (and funny) joyful tune. Even when it’s less obvious, that’s Harding’s game: draw you in with a convoluted darkness only to untwist it with a blunt blasé dryness. She boasts the dramatic, fantastical indulgence of Kate Bush, through a distinctly millennial filter.
While she approaches the poetic and abstract with a poignant nonchalance, when discussing her addiction, it seems Harding is at her most frank. “I’m So Sorry” is a detailing of the realization that you’re holding yourself back (“Freedom, balance / So many friends wish that for me...But I find little excuses / They bring me their milk and it just goes down”), while “Swell Does The Skull” details the push and pull of vice (“Don't want to be a sinner, no / But bourbon, always bourbon”).
Regardless of what she’s examining, Harding tackles a range with complexity—a complexity that isn’t trying too hard, but only a handful of singer-songwriters can consistently achieve. She’s a master articulator on Party, making it an equally unsettling and satisfying album to become enraptured with if you give it the time it needs.
Amileah Sutliff is a New York-based writer, editor and creative producer and an editor of the book The Best Record Stores in the United States.