Designer is an album of elegant contemplation, of confidence, doubt and longing.
New Zealand singer-songwriter Aldous Harding came to many peopleâ€™s consciousness thanks to a bizarre and bewildering performance of the song â€śHorizonâ€ť on the UK show Laterâ€¦with Jools Holland. Like a less mannered, more haunting Kate Bush, Hardingâ€™s performance resembled a form of self-possession, captivating the audience with its refrain, â€śHere is your princess/ And here is the horizon.â€ť
On the album on which â€śHorizonâ€ť appeared, 2017â€™s Party, Harding collaborated with producer and multi-instrumentalist John Parish, perhaps best known for his work with PJ Harvey. On this yearâ€™s Designer, Harding and Parish reunite on nine new songs, recorded and mixed in under a month.
Most of us will have seen the music video for â€śThe Barrel.â€ť The video itself is a typical piece of Harding strangeness, but even without visuals, the song more than holds its own weight. Propelled by her finger-picked guitar, minimal, incisive drumming and occasional interventions by piano, electric guitar and what appears to be a clarinet, â€śThe Barrelâ€ť captures the sylvan mood that predominates on this album. Conjuring microcosms of experience with delightful and mysterious lines such as â€śThe wave of love is a transient hunt/ Waterâ€™s the shell and we are the nut,â€ť the song is an apt example of her use of mythical and symbolic elements to carry and sustain her own original vision. Though, in isolation, lines such as â€śshow the ferret to the eggâ€ť or â€śI know you have the doveâ€ť risk seeming like unmotivated artifice, in context they are natural elements in a musical environment suffused with magic and wonder, with the play of shadows on a wall that can only deciphered by their beholder-conjurer.
The streamlined approach of the album is laid out by album opener â€śFixture Picture,â€ť which, despite its hazy, melancholy mood, is the closest Harding gets to writing a kind of folk-pop song, something you could imagine Neil Young writing in an adventurous mood. The restrained, tasteful arrangement suggests Hardingâ€™s commitment to focus on the strengths of her writing rather than oddity alone.
And the album is full of great writing. Lyrics exist in context, of course, but even when they are plucked out they resonate as much as a musical chord. Think of lines such as â€śThe old, it bickers with the fresh/ When Iâ€™m standing with my brush in the emptiness.â€ť With its casual delivery, it manages to marry age-old wisdom with a certain colloquial intimacy, a large-scale vision with domesticity and introspection. Or consider the way natural and emotional metaphors are mixed on the title track, â€śDesignerâ€ťâ€”â€śTears water the flowers of need/ And you bend my day at the knee,â€ť Harding sings. Her seemingly effortless bridging of different symbolic domains and psychic registers is perhaps her most impressive characteristic as a songwriter, and it is found in spades on this album.
As for her singing, Harding seems to have honed her instrument and matured as a performerâ€”the inflections of her voice give shape and color to every line, and her choices never seem forced. Though the songs certainly have more or less traditional structuresâ€”they have verses and choruses, after allâ€”they sound more like a series of meditations than they do folk or pop songs. Precisely by opting for simplicity and tautness, the arrangements (both instrumental and vocal) lend a greater depth to her phrasing than a more explicitly experimental approach might have been able to allow. As her voice makes a silky slither toward the higher notes on â€śZoo Eyes,â€ť the song lifts to a blissful state, coaxing the listener into a secret garden populated by the ideas Harding has planted there.
Designer is an album of elegant contemplation, of confidence, doubt and longing, and as a result is Hardingâ€™s most assured album yet, taking a direct approach to its own arresting strangeness and making room for everyone within its singular and expansive shape.