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Aldous Harding's wondrous work of universal beauty

Aldous Harding: swooping between natural folkish tones, theatrical crescendos and strange scrunched or stretched pronunciation.

Nine stunning songs from a Lyttelton artist going places.

The intensity of Aldous Harding’s second album, Party, has as much to do with her captivating performance as the careful production, which draws a tension between naivety and ancient knowledge.

The Lyttelton artist swoops between natural folkish tones, theatrical crescendos and strange scrunched or stretched pronunciation – sometimes all within a single song – as she turns personal stories into other-worldly narratives by seeming to sing through a cast-load of characters.

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Her playful vocal range creates a soft childishness to Living the Classics, in which the vowels are twisted into innocence, before that purity has the rug pulled from under it in Party, where she tells an unnerving tale of being made to “sit like a baby, I looked just 12, with his thumb in my mouth” and then singing of shame, cuddled stones and the smell of death set against a bass clarinet dirge and a rapturous female choir.

This kind of production is demanding, but through the deft handling of PJ Harvey’s go-to man, John Parish, it provides a bold and occasionally startling backdrop to these nine stunning songs.

From opener Blend, which backs pure, smouldering vocals and a gentle acoustic guitar with a faintly industrial electronic beat and queasy tinnitus squeal, the production challenges Harding as narrator to stay centre stage. Funereal sax and a child’s playground shout punctuate Imagining My Man and pounded piano chords and more grinding sax in Horizon create a tension that begs for (but thankfully never gets) a banging dance-floor-friendly beat. The piano on What If Birds Aren’t Singing They’re Screaming and the guitar pluck on The World Is Looking for You and Swell Does the Skull recall a child’s wind-up music box while Harding’s voice twirls above.

In a year when solo female Kiwi artists supposedly start and end with Lorde, Harding has created a wondrous work of universal beauty and aching intelligence.

PARTY, Aldous Harding (Flying Nun)

★★★★1/2

This article was first published in the June 3, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.