Release Date: Apr 26, 2019
Record label: 4AD
The New Zealand singer/songwriter's third studio effort, and her second time working with producer and frequent PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish, Designer eschews the post-last call darkness of 2017's Party for something a bit sunnier, though no less peculiar. Aldous Harding remains an enigma; she's an elusive but captivating presence who can invoke both a nervous giggle and a slack-jawed tear via her careful pairing of abstract lyrics and subtle hooks. Her off-kilter songs have something in common with the knotty confections of Welsh pop innovator Cate Le Bon, but Harding's willingness to wrap her sibylline words in such agreeable melodies gives her a bit of an advantage.
Aldous Harding's abstract songwriting left listeners of her past two records confused yet enchanted, and the experience remains for her third album, Designer. But the bewilderment evoked by Harding is a blissful change from how easy it is to digest a lot of contemporary music. By being vague, Harding shifts the focus to listeners who now have a role to play: to fill in the blanks she has left. In a recent interview with Exclaim!, Harding challenges listeners to do exactly that, explaining: "Designer is meant to mean whatever it means ….
New Zealand singer-songwriter Aldous Harding's third effort 'Designer' is her second to be released on 4AD. Recorded over two weeks in Bristol with PJ Harvey producer John Parish, the result is about as enchanting as folk records come. Lead single 'The Barrel' is a wonderful balance of finger-picked acoustic guitar, piano chords and plodding bass. Her deep, lilting vocals are delivered with a tenderness akin to Nico or even Nick Drake, as she sings "look at all the peaches, how do you celebrate?".
You can almost imagine Aldous Harding's face contorting into paralytic awe or into an expression of statuesque severity when you hear her move guilelessly through her register. Interesting then that in the two videos ("The Barrel" and "Fixture Picture") debuted before her new album Designer, the reveal of the face is postponed or in some ways subverted. Aldous Harding is not a particularly candid songwriter.
With Aldous Harding, there are no easy answers. Since releasing her self-titled debut in 2014, the New Zealand singer-songwriter has dodged those who would try to put a finger on her elusive appeal. Critics tend to describe her work as "gothic folk"--a label that misses the idiosyncrasies of her ambitious, largely acoustic songs, muting their pockets of color.
A breath of fresh air in a time dense with noise and algorithmic hiss, this is an open-hearted deep dive into Aldous Harding's colourful imagination After attracting universal glowing acclaim with her second album 'Party', New Zealand alt-folk singer-songwriter Aldous Harding returns to attempt to leap over the high bar she's set for herself. From meandering jazz to dark chamber pop, her previous was a record that defied comparison. Teaming up once again with PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish on production, 'Designer' seems to gracefully pick up where 'Party' left off, yet with a little more control as she continues down her esoteric path.
Ever since I first heard 'The Barrel', the first song to be released from Aldous Harding's Designer, some two months ago, I haven't stopped thinking about the peaches and ferrets and eggs of its lyrics. In fact, I haven't stopped thinking about any of the rest of it either - the country-but-not guitar; the striking video and its spectacular millinery; the fact that such a good single is reason enough to buy an entire album in blind faith. And as it turns out, such faith would be perfectly placed, for Designer is a strange and beautiful idyll built on poetic surrealism, acoustic twangs, poppy hooks, starry mysticism, indulgent track lengths, wry smiles and production crisp as new bedlinen.
There's this quiet intensity to Aldous Harding's music that is impossible to shake. Each song is imbued with an incredibly rich sense of atmosphere, something 2017's breakout album 'Party' mastered to a fine degree. 'Designer' finds the New Zealand born songwriter writing a fresh chapter, and she does so with typically astute artistry. Recorded over a 15 day period in Bristol alongside John Parish, it's a record both bold in its approach and bald in its palette, with Aldous Harding using this sparsity to suggest so much more than the sum of its parts.
H ad Aldous Harding remained preserved in aspic, with just two mesmeric, folk-adjacent albums to her name, she would still be numbered among this generation's true originals. Renown and greater budgets have allowed this New Zealander to trade up to a more generous band sound and ever-lusher production, still courtesy of John Parish who did Party, her tour de force of 2015. Harding's rhythmic decisions have started tending towards Spain; now there's a Welsh lilt to add to her zoo of voices.
C omebacks come no more enigmatic than The Barrel, the first single to be taken from Aldous Harding's third album, and its accompanying video. It featured the New Zealand-born singer-songwriter performing stylised dance moves and giving knowing looks to camera while variously wearing a tall white hat, a white ruff and enormous platform boots; a grotesque blue mask and a T-shirt and white underpants accessorised with a pair of maracas. The lyrics were as puzzling as the video: "I know you have the dove, I'm not getting wet … show the ferret to the egg, I'm not getting led along." Perhaps understandably, what the whole thing was supposed to be about was the subject of considerable online debate.