We’ve seen it countless times, across multiple generations, and only Old Father Time allows for real perspective, or an assessment that ultimately sticks long after the critique or initial hyperbole dies down. Occasionally, ground-breaking works have been shunned by the general masses upon arrival or release, only for another generation to fully embrace the beauty or importance of it, years or decades later. And vice versa. More frequently, work hailed as extraordinary (or such) at first reveal, fails to stand the test of time.
I often think about bands like the Velvet Underground in that context; pretty much always in the shade (and in shades!) during the period when the band was an actual going concern, and performing regularly. A New York/niche thing, loved only by Warhol and an assortment of (visionary) weirdos, scarcely embraced at the time by a wider public intent on lapping up the mainstream sounds of The Beatles, the Stones, and the Beach Boys. Yet today, 50 years on, the Velvet Underground is frequently cited as some kind of hugely influential year zero phenomenon.
So anyway, we now come to Aldous Harding, the New Zealand-based “artist”/musician, and her new album, Party, her second full-length release. And no, I’m not about to say that the so-called gothic folk musician is some kind of once in a generation messianic pop culture figure that we’ll all “get” half a century from now … but I do think she is one of the more challenging or confronting local artists in recent memory.
Certainly her vocal style – she sings as though she has hearing loss or a slight speech impediment – and her unusual tortured-soul facial expressions can be a little cringe worthy at first. Cringe worthy in the sense that personally, both of those things make me feel a little uneasy, and they fly in the face of what I’ve come to “expect” from a young artist launching a pop career. Therefore, essentially, it’s my problem, not hers.
There was some uproar in social media circles (okay, my social media circle) recently when one of the country’s more high profile blogger/reviewers dared to publicly dismiss Harding’s work in a rather cruel way – by posting a YouTube clip labelled ‘Funny Goats Screaming Like Humans’ (as the review itself), before going on to say that Harding had “no songs”. A view that was, and is, completely at odds with the international profile and success she’s enjoying, but nonetheless a view from a popular blogger long noted for his no-holds-barred willingness to express an honest and frank opinion come hell or high water. He attracted a lot of flak on that social media platform, an unfeasible amount really, given that it is little more than one man’s assessment. But equally, there were a lot of people who agreed with his position.
The net result was that Harding and Party received a lot more attention than might otherwise have been the case, and although I had been aware of her (and the amount of praise she’d been the recipient of), it was only the controversy or discussion surrounding her worth that ultimately prompted me to download the album. Who said that there’s no such thing as bad publicity? She should put that blogger on a retainer.
Listening to Party, which was released on 4AD, via Flying Nun, I was confronted by that highly unusual singing style, and forced – thanks to comments I’d read on that social media thread – to weigh up just how “real” she was in terms of the overwhelming sense of loss/grief she exudes. Or the levels of existential angst she outwardly portrays. It had been implied that this part of her art was somehow fake, and therefore some kind of exploitative ruse.
In the end, I concluded that none of that last part really mattered one bit, any more than it matters when Robert Smith howls demonstrably during any number of Cure tunes, when Peter Murphy gets all Bauhaus on Bela Lugosi’s arse, or when, god forbid, the hair metal rocker removes his top in front of 50,000 screaming (and clearly deluded) fans. If he effectively gets his cock out and struts across the stage, then Harding seeks to accentuate or express her own inner demon by widening her eyes and pulling a funny face.
It’s confronting and it’s challenging. So what if it’s an act? … it’s merely part of her art. And what do these people expect, for Harding to produce a set of razorblades or go full fury Ian Curtis solely in order to prove her authenticity?
And I can’t agree that she has no songs. She does, it’s just that they’re highly unusual, formula-need-not-apply, stripped back, dark affairs, that aren’t easy to classify. With stark piano and acoustic forms, instrumentation that somehow leaves you wanting more. Part of that appeal, admittedly, is surely down to the studio talents of Bristol-based producer John Parish. There’s also couple of cameo appearances from Mike Hadreas, see Perfume Genius.
I’m several listens into Party, and I’m enjoying it to the extent that the only cringe factor I now endure is the one I feel when I think about how close I came to missing out on the album altogether. Where it stands in the wider pantheon of New Zealand music, beyond now always being used as a reference point in social media arguments about what constitutes an album review, is totally in the hands of our veritable friend, Old Father Time.
Highlights include the title track, plus ‘Blend’, ‘Horizon’, and ‘Imagining My Man’ (clip below) ...