The art work for Aldous Harding‘s debut album featured the Lyttleton, New Zealand native. She is situated in a field of brush donning a Liquor Centre ball cap, and her face is solemn. The image provided insights into what Aldous Harding would be – a calm, serene collection of intimate folk music. Her sophomore album, Party, is like the flip side of the coin. Harding’s face is once again the centre of attention. This time, the black-and-white photograph depicts a confident and self-assured artist. Yet the photo is dark and mysterious, and a fragility pierces through it with its grainy texture. This isn’t the same, innocent singer-songwriter of three years ago, but one who has blossomed into a force of nature.

Party is still very much a folk / alt-folk album, but it is more gripping than its predecessor. Harding, herself, is even more vulnerable with her unique, enchanting voice quivering at times and her stories revealing a little bit about herself but in cryptic ways. “Horizon” was the first introduction to Harding’s new world. With just the press of a few keys on the piano and the aching strokes of the strings, Harding’s voice carries the tune. Despite its simplicity, the song is dark and captivating. It is like a psychological journey to unknown places that lurk beyond the hills, particularly as Harding sings, “Say again this place. Here is your princess. Here is your horizon”.

The delicate “Party” starts off subtly, as Harding tells the tale of a person maturing from a bashful girl to a confident woman. The arrangements are gorgeous, beginning with an acoustic guitar before the piano, percussion, and baritone sax chime in. It is the chorus, though, that is a marvel, swelling unexpectedly with a choir of young voices following Harding’s lead. The pensive “I’m So Sorry” is a glimpse inside Harding’s personal life, specifically how alcohol has stolen a part of her early years. “I find little excuses. They bring me their milk and it just goes done”, Harding reveals with chilling effect.

Even some of the most tender and whimsical songs have a layer of darkness. “What If Birds Aren’t Singing They’re Screaming” has a light, carnival atmosphere, as the keyboard-driven melody is placed on a loop. The approach perfectly complements this song about the hallucinating effects of marijuana and the thoughts that percolate in one’s mind while under the influence. “I got high and thought I saw an angel, but it was just a ghost”, Harding recalls with a shrug of the shoulders. With its Latin-inspired guitar melody and the vibrating tremolo guitar lingering in the background, “Living The Classics” is stunning. A feeling of uneasiness and uncertainty, however, hovers in the air on this song about desire and ambition.

“Can’t fight the feeling.
Going to make it.
Won’t stop turning.
Until I’m twisted.
Come find me.
Drag me back to hell.”

The album’s highlight is “Imagining My Man”, which is simultaneously breathtaking yet bone-chilling. The slight tinges of the piano, acoustic guitar, drums, and saxophone create an intimate soundscape akin to a solemn room where a couple spends their weekends. It provides the perfect canvas to Harding’s intimate storytelling, as she shares the story of a person afraid of commitment and losing the one in the process. The solemn room now is filled by a lonely heart that still dreams of what was and what could have been.

“All my life I’ve had to fight to stay.
You were right, love takes time. Hey hey.”

On “The World Is Looking For You”, Harding strips things down even further. It is the album’s most intimate number and also offers the best reflection of the singer-songwriter’s previous incantation. The song is one about undying love, but is it between two people or for one self? The answer likely is both, as Harding’s powerful voice is tempered to a whisper and she speaks about her own strength and “madness”. In listening to the song, another message peeks around the corner. It is that of a young woman’s decade-plus journey to finding an audience beyond the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. This is the call of an artist seeking to be heard and acknowledged for her talents. For Harding, her sophomore album is indeed just that – it is her “coming-out” Party, a fascinating and rich record to be celebrated for a very long time.

Party is out now via Flying Nun Records (New Zealand/Australia) and 4AD (rest of the world). Harding has commenced a lengthy, worldwide tour. See dates here.

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