Nico, Vashti Bunyan, Neil Young, John Cale, PJ Harvey, David Bowie – these are some of the dissimilar vocalists that come to mind when you listen to the fourth album by New Zealand singer-songwriter Aldous Harding. Unsurprisingly, the adoption of various personae is nothing new to Harding, who swapped her birth name of Hannah Topp to her stage name in the lead-up to releasing her debut album in 2014. Before that, she was an aspiring singer-songwriter hovering around the New Zealand music scene, slowly but surely developing her untethered indie folk to the point where her country couldn't hold on to her.
For some years, Harding has been based in Cardiff, Wales, a location that makes perfect sense of her conspicuous Velvet Underground and 1960s British folk tastes. Such affiliations are there in songs such as Leathery Whip, Tick Tock, Staring at the Henry Moore, and the title track; each song is powered by unforced, simplistic and locked-in, skewed melody lines. If you drift a bit while listening, you can swear the ghosts of Lou Reed, Bunyan, Nico et al are circling around your head, looking for a way in. Other songs don’t work so well. The piano ballad She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain employs a vocal so tremulously close to classic-era Neil Young (“not intentional, more necessary,” Harding informed Mojo magazine) that you’d testify under oath it was an outtake from After the Gold Rush. Obversely, her vocal on Passion Babe looks toward Scandinavia for its hooks, and you’re left wondering, despite the song’s effectiveness, why on earth she would do this.
A raised eyebrow might be directed towards her lyrics. Although charming and bemusing in equal measure, Harding has claimed that for this album she was more interested in letting the instrumentation speak than the words. Such an approach can be viewed as either reasonable or hollow, yet there's no denying that when she wants to fire off a direct hit, she does. "Well, you know I married," she sings in Passion Babe, "and I was bored out of my mind." Another target aimed for and reached is on the decidedly risqué Leathery Whip ("Baby go lightly, I feel me tightening up ... I'll be all day getting the velvet back to you, Bambi"), which also sees her performing an unlikely but intriguing duet with Sleaford Mods vocalist Jason Williamson.
The outcome amounts to an admirable showcase of numerous roles, but there’s a skittish ambiguity throughout that somehow leaves Harding anchorless and distanced – not least from herself and the listener.