When Aldous Harding sings “he took me to a clearing” on the title track of her second album, it sounds more like the start of a murder ballad than an invitation to a pool party.
Sung in a slightly girlish voice over gentle guitar and piano, it has all the hallmarks of reverential gothic folk. Yet when the New Zealand singer-songwriter observes some time later that “stones smell good when you cuddle them” the track’s tone shifts to the kind of stoner folk that’s continued on the Nico-esque ‘What If Birds Aren’t Singing They’re Screaming’.
It’s an ability to tease expectations that marks out the best of these nine tracks. The percussion on ‘Blend’, which reverberates like snooker balls being knocking together, has a puritanical sparsity that defies the trademark lushness of her new label 4AD. The cheerleader ‘hey!’ yelps on the piano-led ‘Imagining My Man’, meanwhile, sound misplaced until they register as a perverse antidote to the track’s somber tone.
Her vocals are equally contrary, with multiple characters being created as she shifts from smoky blues on ‘I’m So Sorry’ to seething confrontation on standout torch song ‘Horizon’, which strips away all instruments save piano and cello.
These voices are united by the way in which she enunciates words, giving the impression that she’s encountering them for the first time. This creates an uneasy, slightly alien feel when harmonised against herself, as on the title track, or when contrasted with Perfume Genius’ Mike Hadreas on the out-of-time ‘Swell Does The Skull’.
The different voices and inversions mean that, even though she operates within the broad confines of gothic folk, she has an air of unpredictability. This suggests that the listener is party to a talent at the very start of her creative life.