I knew nothing about Aldous Harding before pressing play on Designer aside from head Bastard Fran Slater telling me that he “fucking loved” her, and describing her as “folky, but a bit fucking mad”. But from listening to the record repeatedly and reading a bit online, it seems that the New Zealander has reined in the fucking madness for her third record, creating instead an impressively understated, poetic, and fairly lyrically impenetrable LP that showcases an artist’s versatility and ability to capture the listener’s attention with minimal elements.
That’s not to say that the madness has gone completely though. The two videos released to promote this record are reassuringly bonkers. In the visual for highlight ‘The Barrel’, Harding wears an ostentatious hat, dons the mask of a blue-faced demon and ends up dancing in her underwear. 4AD describes her video for album opener ‘Fixture Picture’ as “Jodorowsky-esque” and its mixture of surrealism and comedy is amusingly charming.
The unhinged visuals neatly set up a record that contains lyrics I’ll unimaginatively describe as ‘cryptic’. After several listens I can’t really tell you who the ‘designer’ of the title refers to (the ways Harding and by extension all of us attempt to, successfully or unsuccessfully, design our own lives perhaps?), and the lyrics resist easy analysis. Internet research suggests that Harding herself is largely opposed to explaining any of them, meaning that we have to settle wholly on our own interpretations. For some artists, this could have been a limiting factor: it means that the artist rightly or wrongly believes that their craft is refined enough for the message to come across without making clear what the intention is. For the most part on Designer, Harding’s trust in herself is well placed.
A key reason for this is the versatility she shows across the record. Harding’s voice isn’t particularly powerful – it sounds like it’s positively creaking under the strain when she sings “I can do anything” on ‘Weight of the Planets’ – but it has impressive range with high and low pitches adding subtle texture and tone to create meaning.
‘Zoo Eyes’ for instance has a sweetly sung chorus which is offset by a deeper tone for the opening and closing question, “what am I doing in Dubai?”. It provides a nice juxtaposition, contrasting the feeling of wonder at the possibilities of life while being bogged down in the insecurities of our own decision-making. The almost twee-sounding vocals of ‘Fixture Picture’ sound like they come from a different singer to the dire tones of penultimate track ‘Heaven is Empty’ – something that is undoubtedly a conscious decision from Harding as the comparatively expansive sound of the earlier songs narrows into more spare arrangements towards the closing of the record.
The main quality of this record is in just this – the split between fleshed-out musical arrangements and minimal acoustic tracks, meticulously produced by PJ Harvey-collaborator John Parish, all driven by Harding’s unshowy poetic lyricism. The fact that it’s lyrically hard to comprehend is largely offset by the attractive arrangements. Harding deserves credit that minimal songs like the centrepiece ‘Damn’ and closer ‘Pilot’ hold the attention to the extent that they do, given that the tracks consist simply of her voice and a skeletal piano melody.
Designer is, well yes, a little mad – and the fact that it’s hard to know what message the artist is trying to put across can blunt the emotional impact of these songs to an extent. But Harding and Parish have designed an accomplished record in a poetic and musical sense, and that is something to be admired.
Words by Tom Burrows