There's something that can't be explained about Aldous Harding's music. Even when she's stripping things back to mere acoustics, or crafting a song around just one repetitive piano line, there remains something beguiling and completely unknowable about what she's created. On Designer, her third record, Harding is exploring worlds new to her and her listeners; the songs are lighter and more uplifting than anything she's done before, and the results are simply extraordinary.
Harding's Party (2017), albeit excellent, was not always an easy listen - it was an album of almost unrelenting darkness. On Designer, Harding's chords and tempos face steadily towards the sun. The jangly piano and warm acoustic guitar on the title track are the most immediate example of this; when Harding asks, "Whatever was your angle/With that visionary shimmer?" you can almost hear the smile on her voice. That line alone could sum up the sheer beauty of Designer; Harding seems to be seeing the world with brand new eyes, feeling along its lines and curves with admiration, forever searching for the mysterious root of its design.
That sense of awe permeates the record. The hypnotic Zoo Eyes introduces two Hardings: a lost traveller in the verses, singing at a hauntingly deep pitch. Almost comically, Harding conjures the frightening feeling of being in the world, untethered to anything: "What am I doing in Dubai?" But in the chorus, her voice is high, pretty and full of wonder, as she traces different lines of beauty in the natural world: "All rain is beads/That drain to where the Mother shell meets the sea."
Some of Designer's most affecting moments are when Harding lays out her insecurities and inner conflicts. The stunning, minimal piano track Damn opens with two lines that speak to anyone who's ever felt they take up too much space: "Can you make a space on the seat?/A box-like shape for a silly woman?" Later, it's felt even deeper in an open-ended apology: "Sorry I was late and you didn't get your weekend".
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But even at a moment where it seems Harding is recounting a failure, there's hope within the tune. Damn could read as bleak, but it's imbued with such warmth that it's hard not to feel as though Harding is making peace with a time gone by. On Weight of the Planets, the following track, she carries past trauma with her: "I can be anything/But I've got the weight of the planets". But it's not stopping Harding from walking toward a brighter future.
Aldous Harding, Designer
Artist: Aldous Harding
Label: Flying Nun
Verdict: A stunning, strangely uplifting record from New Zealand's most beguiling songwriter