Album Review: Aldous Harding – Aldous Harding

By on Tuesday, 15th September 2015 at 12:00 pm
 

aldous_cd_web1Singer/songwriter Aldous Harding initially released her self-titled first album over a year ago in her home country of New Zealand on the Lyttleton Records label. The album was released in the UK by Spunk Records back in November and is now garnering worldwide attention, seeing its French debut last Friday along with the release of a new video for its opening track ‘Stop Your Tears’.

Harding’s lyrics in ‘Stop Your Tears’ have the air of Romantic-era prose about them, and more than a few such literary references are scattered throughout the album. The literary character that immediately came to mind as I listened to ‘Stop Your Tears’ was Charles Dickens’ Miss Havisham, from his novel ‘Great Expectations’. The song’s opening lines, “I will never marry my love / I will die waiting for the bells”, express overwhelming loneliness but also the potent bitterness and resentment that would become Miss Havisham’s downfall in the novel. Harding’s character here sings “the blade is ready for the slaughter / the Virgin Mary hangs on the door” as she faces a different but equally bleak set of outcomes in the song’s rather horrific closing scene.

[youtube]https://youtu.be/B3Wds4gDGRc[/youtube]

The album’s lead single ‘Hunter’ is more uptempo, its guitar and violin melodies accompanied by anxiously shuffling percussion as Harding draws a particularly vicious metaphor of love and betrayal. The Miss Havisham parallel continues further with the ghostly wail of ‘Two Bitten Hearts’, whose instrumentation tentatively expands beyond Harding’s standard acoustic fare.

‘Titus Groan’ is the album’s main excursion into expanded instrumental arrangement, with electric guitar and keyboards along accompanying the piercing violins and Harding’s dramatically whispered vocals. Continuing the ‘Great Expectations’ character comparison, Harding introduces her own Pip counterpart in the lines “behind this house there is a boy / I hear him cry at night”. ‘Beast’ extends the analogy in reference to Miss Havisham’s vengeful and carefully crafted experiment with Pip and Estella, in which Pip is ultimately heartbroken by Estella’s romantic rejection. Harding’s biting vocal delivery expresses bitter regret in questioning “who gave the bone to the beast / who led it back from grace and gave it fire for its feast?”

The poignant woodwind melody of ‘No Peace at All’ conveys a quiet suffering, and there is a heavy sense of resignation in the oft-repeated lyric “and here I find no peace at all”. ‘Merriweather’ is slightly brighter in tone, but the male backing harmony vocal is like a persistent dark cloud blocking the sun, as Harding sings of loyalty to the ashes of a lost lover, buried “under the dust”.

The album closes with ‘Titus Alone’, an acoustic reprise of the earlier ‘Titus Groan’. This softer, simpler instrumentation puts more focus on Harding’s vivid lyrics, “follow me down for wine and tales of bravery / follow us down for meat and songs of victory”, making the track feel almost like a troubadour song from the Middle Ages. You can stream the audio for ‘Titus Alone’ just below.

[youtube]https://youtu.be/NyB3L-F6i6M?list=PL9ndKqVXOpEgO7ZIOqLOKG97JJEsqr78t[/youtube]

Indeed, labelling Aldous Harding’s music as ‘alt-folk’ is a bit of a misnomer. Most of her songs, with their acoustic instrumentation and narrative thematic style, would fit perfectly into the definition of traditional folk, albeit a darker and more dramatic folk style than the bright banjos and plucked guitar melodies we typically encounter. Nevertheless, fans of Laura Marling’s alt-folk will find much to like in Aldous Harding. Though Harding’s musical arrangements lack Marling’s sharp edge and compositional subtlety, her outstanding lyrics push past the typical female songwriter’s boundaries of delicacy, employing the Romantic literary juxtaposition of disarmingly realistic poetic imagery and a deep, pervasive sense of emotional enigma.

7/10

Aldous Harding’s debut album ‘Aldous Harding’ is available now on Spunk Records.

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