“Shut up,” hisses a patron to the bartenders talking at the back of the Metro. This is no time for idle chatter. Aldous Harding is close-picking her way through The World Is Looking For You, one of only two selections from her breakthrough album from 2017, Party – five minutes of spidery folk that Harding performs alone, seated, with just an acoustic guitar.
In a mid-sized venue, most artists would get away with something like this towards the end of their set. Not the beginning. But Harding’s set is more like a high-wire act. She walks slowly onstage, without fanfare, seats herself, and just waits, as though psyching her audience out. The entire room is full and still. Not a soul lingers at the bar. Not a phone is raised.
When it’s over, there’s an exhalation, then an ovation. Harding rises as her four-piece band arrives. She’s wearing a loose-fitting, burnt-orange trouser suit and black porkpie hat. Another close-picked triad of notes opens Designer, the title track of her brilliant third album, before the song opens up to reveal a surprising palette of instrumental colour, including a flugelhorn.
And then she breaks the spell. She walks off stage to speak to the sound engineer, then back. “Hi,” she says. “So, having a bit of a ’mare up here … How’s that? It doesn’t sound like anything to me.” Suddenly, the audience is unsettled. Harding’s New Zealand brogue is reassurance, at least, that she hasn’t dropped in from some distant planet.
But it’s the sheer otherness of Harding that captivates the audience, which spans sexualities, colour and at least three generations. There is something about what she is doing that is not just fresh but new. Nothing about her songs is obvious – trying to unpack the metaphors in her lyrics is like wrestling with a Rubik’s cube – yet the language seems oddly universal.
Still, she’s wobbling, up there on the wire. “I apologise, I like to provide a drama-free service,” she says. Zoo Eyes hangs in the air with its impenetrable central question: “What am I doing in Dubai?” But Harding composes herself, then floors everyone with Treasure, a song that sucks all the air from the room.
She thanks everyone for “standing by while I’m trying to claw my way back to some kind of normality”, and the band sidles into The Barrel, Designer’s lead single. It’s as strange a song as has ever been written but its groove is full of latent energy, its melody insinuating and insistent. The crowd is moving now, and the song’s brief spike of electric guitar brings cheers.
Harding apologises afterwards, and says she’s not feeling herself. By this, I take her to mean that her issues with the onstage sound, whatever they are, are making her self-conscious, and therefore unable to fully inhabit the songs as she’d wish. But, as she gurns and grimaces and rolls her eyes, she is still riveting.
Harding has at times reminded us that her theatricality – including the multitude of voices in which she delivers her songs – is a persona, a show. Those voices, whether on the husky, Nico-like drone of Damn or her falsetto on Gerry Rafferty’s Right Down The Line, are rich in nuance and controlled to perfection.
But as alien as she appears (at times, in both her androgyny and otherworldliness, she’s reminiscent of Hunky Dory-era Bowie), watching Harding perform is to be touched by something that’s deeply human. What’s moving is her vulnerability, her willingness to take risks and to fail. Her bravery is underlined by her ending the night with a new song, Old Peel.
Blend is the only other song from Party, and Harding dances, her movements as lithe and elegant and perfectly timed as the music. Her band stands and takes in yet another ovation before Harding returns, solo again, to play Heaven Is Empty. It’s a death rattle of a song, Harding’s voice suspended in mid-air over a couple of wide-spaced chords.
And outside the room, at the empty bar, a staff member can be heard firing up a vacuum cleaner.
First published in The Guardian, 27 August 2019