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ALDOUS HARDING Designer gets 8.5/10


Aldous Harding

Designer
4AD

8.5/10

New Zealand born singer-songwriter, troubadour and professional weirdo Aldous Harding lets it hang loose on her third LP Designer, in what may prove to be the best indie folk album of the year.

Harding is a beguiling mix – rooted primarily in English folk of the late 60s and 70s, but with a solid pinch of indie introspection. Harding’s previous efforts were steeped in pastoral melancholy and mysticism and, while this effort retains both in spades, it’s also her most quirky and catchy set of tunes to date.

This is most apparent on the first single The Barrel, best heard with its accompanying music video (see below). We peak our head under our covers and see Harding pulling all sorts of strange yet adorable dance moves, all while decked out 17th-century puritan garb featuring a giant hat resembling an oversized peanut. The tune matches the quirky and childlike atmosphere perfectly, with a great looping acoustic line and entrancing, sleepy vocals. In a career thus far defined by introspective and winding folk, this is her most fun composition to date.

Earlier on in the album, opener Fixture Picture sets the tone from the get-go. While The Barrel is both adorable and memorable, this here is her most pop-ready tune. The chorus is infinitely hummable, and the harmonised fiddle delectable. Title track Designer sees Harding take on a Nick Drake lilt in another heart-warming tune. The chorus is catchy and cleverly constructed, crunching the tune to a halt each time before continuing on its merry way again. The open and close of the track see melody give way to stray arpeggios, flutes and open melodies. On previous albums, Harding played with these open-ended tricks like a one-woman version of the Incredible String Band. Here, she wisely spares these loose soundscapes for a more structured, but still organic sound.

Zoo Eyes is more overtly indie, daring to electrify its guitars (even if they’re firmly set to ‘clean’). Once again the melody will burrow itself into your ear, not to mention the lyrics which are supremely odd in the usual Harding tradition (“What am I doing in Dubai?/ In the prime of my life /Do you love me?”). Perhaps most impressive is how the tune manages to build, while never rising above a whisper.

Folk-pop is not the only style up Harding’s sleeve, as the rest of the album is filled out with some masterful ballads. Treasure boasts a heart-rending piano melody and finger-picked accompaniment that recalls Cat Stevens. Harding brings her vocals to the forefront, to the point where we can hear every little nuance. No bridge is required in a tune that is utterly entrancing. Weight of the Planets is a bubbling little number and the closest that the album has to a soulful tune, with Harding actually stretching some notes, and her open-ended lyrics taking on a bit more focus. Lyrically Harding handles topics concerning relationships and responsibility, but she lays on metaphor and simile as only she can. Closer Pilot is a short-form slice of poetry that sums up Harding’s approach better than any other. “I get so anxious I need a tattoo/ Something binding that hides me/ But when the time comes up to design it/ It opens up like height under a pilot”.

The album isn’t quite perfect, with Damn overstaying its welcome given its simplistic instrumental underpinning. Heaven Is Empty is also a tad slow – it suffers for its lack of melody and direction in an album full to the brim with both.

Overall though, Designer is a resounding triumph. Harding has embraced a pop sensibility while also creating her most diverse set of tunes yet. She is a little treasure deserving of some much-needed recognition – hopefully, she’ll get it after this effort.

MATIJA ZIVKOVIC

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