Release: May 19, 2017
Label: 4AD

There is a place for quiet music in this world, for introspection. When I was living in downtown Fort Collins, I used to put on my headphones on warm summer evenings and go for a walk around the neighborhood. There I’d drift through the twilight in the alleys and gardens. Or on autumn weekends, I’d go on longer sojourns and end up in a park to do some afternoon reading. Only certain albums work for these kinds of aimless, meditative walks. Aldous Harding’s Party is one that falls into this category.

It starts off pleasantly enough, with a brief and meek track that laments a prior love: “Got problems of the heart and you’re the the perfect blend. Can’t seem to let you off the chain.” Everything here seems to predict an album that will hew to the typical “quiet” archetypes. Heaping helpings of the somber, the reflective, and the pining.

But on track two, “Imagining My Man,” Harding’s voice takes on a completely different character. She switches to a lower register, altering her enunciation of certain words: “hard” is elongated, “man” is truncated. While the song continues the lovelorn trajectory, the lyrics begin veering toward the abstract:

“It’s not what I thought, and it’s not what I pictured when I was imagining my man. You are so nervous all of the time, living the classics.” from “Imagining My Man”

Are these the classics Harding is referring to?

“Living the classics” is one of those phrases that leaves itself open to interpretation. Does it mean that the song’s subject (the imprecise “you”–a choice that further broadens the interpretive possibilities) is always lost in some rose-colored la-la land? It seems like there is certainly some frustration that the “classics” clash with the mundanity of reality. What are the “classics” that Harding is even referring to? Literature like Jane Austen and Tolstoy? Albums by The Beatles and Stones? The phrase carries forward to be the title of the next song, but its lyrics provide no real clarification.

And here I thought being authentic was just about being natural…

If we turn to a track-by-track rundown of the album that appeared on NPR, Harding describes “Imagining My Man” as being about the “tender and frightening thoughts that come with being in love. And growing up, and trying to figure out what the hell it is that you want.” In some ways, I appreciate getting an artist’s firsthand thoughts about their work. But in other ways, the songwriter can be the least credible source when it comes to untangling their own songs’ meanings. On one level, there is the feeling that comes with the birth of a the song–one with which it may never be possible to fully reconnect. Then, there is an artist’s public persona and the way they present themselves to the world. Not that such personae are necessarily calculated or manipulative, just that every interview is a stilted situation–words are considered in a way they might not otherwise be. An artist is always aware of their own mythos. Or at least what they want that it to be, even if it is the apparent antithesis of mythos, the much vaunted “authenticity.”

Intended or not, references to addiction can’t help but evoke tragic career arcs.

Reading further in the NPR explication of Party‘s tracks, it’s clear that there is some authenticity-establishment at work. In her brief comments, Harding mentions addiction, alcohol, and drug use. And so we have the popular archetype of the addicted artist. How much more “authentic” can we get than that? We let our artists live adventurous lives so we can extract our vicarious pleasure. While there is no reason to doubt the veractiy of Harding’s struggles in this regard, to drag these themes out into the open on her sophomore album does seem intentional. She really hasn’t had the length or type of career that one would expect to divert her into the stereotypical rock’n’roll vices–and without the context of the interview, you might not latch onto addiction as a central theme. None of this is to say that musicians have sole claim to addiction–lots of everyday people struggle with it–just that there is extra baggage that comes with airing those struggles in song-form.

What most people don’t realize is that Joni Mitchell has looked at numbers, as well as clouds, from both sides.

One track with a particularly arresting idea–“What if birds aren’t singing? They’re screaming.”–is described as being the “stuff you think about when you do drugs.” The lyrics do reference getting high, but until I read the interview, drugs never felt like the key to the song. The idea of misinterpretation and changing perception is enough for even the sober to contemplate.

Despite all the time I’ve spent assessing the lyrics in this review, for me, Party is an album where the voice acts as an instrument. The words recede into the background and it is all about the emotion being conveyed through the performance. And Harding’s voice has a knack for drawing emotion out of every syllable.

Desolate arrangements enhance the emotionalism. Some delicate finger-picked guitar, a lone piano, some electronics here and there. Chorused vocals that appear from nowhere and fade back into the ether as quickly as they emerged. While most of the accompanying voices are female (Harding in multi-track form), Perfume Genius’ Mike Hadreas guests on two tracks to add an effective, if subtle, counterpoint to Harding’s vocals. The sequencing of the tracks on Party is such that they alternate between the two distinct singing voices noted at the outset of this review–the wan higher-register and the fuller-throated low-register croon. This helps make the sparse record a consistently engaging listen.

So yes, Party is music for solitary evening walks. With the current pace and structure of my life, the closest I get to those are lunchtime strolls or weeknight lawn mowing. I never wander quite as far physically, but my mind still ventures out beyond. Albums like Aldous Harding’s Party enable these mental explorations, and for that, I am thankful.