Secret Meeting score: 83
by Martin Ramsbottom
Nestled in the nape of the Brecon Beacons, a crowd – much too sizeable for the cramped Walled Garden at the Green Man Festival – huddle around a tiny stage dappled in early afternoon sunlight. Aldous Harding arrives accompanied by Jared Samuel of Invisible Familiars and H. Hawkline.
She is selective in her engagement with the crowd which mirrors her spartan arrangements, yet belies her ability to captivate. Her set is spellbinding. Clad completely in white and enunciating the songs with demonic gestures, which draw a comparison between Pere Ubu’s David Thomas, and Malcolm McDowell’s portrayal of Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange, she begins with album opener Blend; an eerie, unsettling gothic folk record woven with Kafkaesque humour.
The duality between the comedy and despair of the record is encapsulated perfectly in the video to Blend, directed by Charlotte Evans – an Auckland-based film director who has produced all Harding’s music videos to date. As she gently delivers the opening line, ‘Hey man, I really need you back again/The years are plenty,’ her face is a serene, child-like talking head. Then the camera slowly pans back to reveal her arrayed in Bond-girl, outfit menacingly swaying and posturing with two plastic guns. The vocal is soft and lilting; the lyrics are playful yet potent; and the video is hilarious.
Imagining My Man anchors the album. It is a tender, yet desperate take on squaring fear and existential dread in relationships and love. Harding’s vocal is laid in stark contrast to the infantile, cheerleader shriek of ‘Hey!’ perfectly placed in thrust of the lyrics. John Parish’s (the overall producer) gift for suffusing regimented percussion with brass instrumentation is a perfect accompaniment to Harding’s vocal complexities. ‘I do not have the answer,’ as a visceral howl hangs leaden over the track and the record overall, gilding the mood. Of all the vocal nuances she draws on, perhaps the most arresting is the stark confrontation of Horizon, demonically delivered and complimented by sparse instrumentation. Lyrics of pure desolation such as ‘I’ve gotta scratch it down, I never could amount/That’s it, babe,’ are juxtaposed with the simmering eroticism of ‘My mouth is wet, don’t you forget it/Don’t you lose me,’ harnessing personality and never letting the message sag into pathetic parody.
4AD is a perfect home for this record – a dark confessional from a gifted vocalist ranging from operatic to overtly gothic. The gift comes full circle as the unnerving Swell Does The Skull, accompanied by Perfume Genius’ Mike Hadreas, draws the album to a close in a finger-picked folk-arc style, drawing comparison with Shirley Collins’ vocals with the Albion Country Band on No Roses. The narrative of the album feels complete. Nine tracks sitting at barely 38 minutes. A claustrophobic, beautiful and arresting testament to paranoia, desire, addiction intimacy and loss. And, when the needle goes lame, you believe in that testament – ‘what if birds aren’t singing, they’re screaming?’