For the Records is a series of articles by special guest writer Mike McCubbins on his favorite albums of the 2010s. Click here to read the entire series.
If you’ve seen Aldous Harding perform songs from her 2017 album Party live, she has a very particular and peculiar set of facial and hand gestures, like someone clowning for children, pantomiming a sad old man or a boxer on the ropes. Her voice takes on characters too, sometimes slipping into the inflection of an elderly Spanish gentleman a la Alejandro Jodorosky (whom her fantastic music videos seem to often pay homage to) or occasionally into a mournful Don Corleone. Aldous herself is a New Zealander. Her previous 2014 s/t album was a collaboration with boyfriend and fellow NZ songwriter Marlon Williams.
Her clown act reminds me most of Gena Rowlands in the film A Woman Under the Influence, a character who has all the energy of a one-woman Broadway spectacular trying to fit her big personality into a suburban life with children and a husband who tries but fails to keep up or at least keep her under his influence.
Party has similar beginnings. Many of its mournful folk ballads are growing pains—Harding coming to terms with stepping out of her life with Williams, a life that wasn’t quite big enough for her. On the album’s most haunting track, “Horizon,” she boils down this dilemma to the essentials:
Here is your princess/ And here is the horizon.
Party starts out with odes to the path and the princess not taken like “Blend” and the excitement on the horizon on “Living the Classics.” But if focusing on frontiers can be a way of avoiding focusing on one’s self, this isn’t lost on Party. She spends much of the rest of the album facing down personal demons like addiction on tracks “I’m So Sorry” and (contender for best song title of the decade) “What if Birds Aren’t Singing They’re Screaming.”
It should be said that I had to go looking through interviews to find the meanings and stories behind these songs. Lyrics Genius is especially helpful in this regard. Party’s lyrics are rarely matter-of-fact in presentation and often open themselves to many interpretations. What is immediately apparent about Party is that Harding’s bizarro visual and vocal theatrics rather than blunting the feels of the lyrics and music only amplify them. Within the comic and tragic masks she wears, her eyes maintain an arresting, haunted gaze. It’s another theatric, sure, but the strange pathos creates an opening in the defenses. Her captivating voice does the rest.
To quote one YouTube commenter, “She’s like if Feist was a sleep paralysis demon.” Harding’s voice and range reminds of Feist, whose blues-inflected 2011 folk album Metals would have made this list if it hadn’t been bumped by Party. Harding also worked with longtime PJ Harvey producer John Parish on this album, its grainy black and white cover photo taken from an unflattering angle certainly recalls some of PJ’s in-your-face covers, and PJ fans are destined to see the similarities in their off-kilter vocal theatrics.
Parish also produced Harding’s excellent 2019 follow-up Designer, which dials back the melancholy but keeps up the surreal theater and vocal costume changes. Harding’s voice has a floating lightness to it on most of Designer’s tracks. It soars above the album and you wonder how far her horizons will take her. She seems keenly aware of the dizzying heights of her freedom, a flight born out of the lows of Party, and in the perfect sour twist of Designer’s closer “Pilot,” she brings back her demon to describe the vertigo. | Mike McCubbins