Sam Brooks reviews Aldous Harding’s mysterious, enthralling third album, Designer.
One of my favourite things of late has been to show unsuspecting people the music video for Aldous Harding’s ‘The Barrel’. As a song, it’s an excellent little thing, the perfect aural venn diagram of Tori Amos and Katie Melua – all the shameless opacity of the former mixed with the pleasant approachability of the latter. With the willfully bizarre video, it gains an extra dimension, a threat and a weirdness that draws you into the song rather than pushes it away. Maybe it’s Harding’s simple, beguiling dancing. Maybe it’s the sudden shift to a blue-faced goblin. Maybe it’s that sudden cut at the end.
It’s a song that I haven’t tried to figure out. I’m perfectly content to listen to it over and over again and bask in the very obvious surface pleasures of it; the interplay between the guitar and the piano, Harding’s smoky falsetto and the insistent drumbeat. But hearing it in the context of Designer, Harding’s first album after her Taite-winning Party, it makes me want to figure out what is at the heart of the song. To get to know it better, to get to love it better. Or, at the very least, try and work out why ‘I know you have the dove / I’m not getting wet’ has been in my head for the past few months.
Designer is full of songs like this. They’re not united by sound necessarily – other than a dedication to loping acoustic melodies, the only genre that fits the album is the lazily defined ‘alternative’ label – but more by a linked sense of mystery. This is an album that rewards multiple listens, with little bits of each song jumping out at you every time you listen to it. The little electric guitar in ‘The Weight of the Planets’, the sudden empty darkness of ‘Heaven is Empty’, the whimsical air to ‘Pilot’. Some songs are easier to work your way into than others, the aforementioned ‘Heaven is Empty’ is a fairly clear lament about the lack of an afterlife, but the majority of the album has a sense of finding a feeling, an image, or a character and then rolling about in it.
It’s easy to label something as ‘enigmatic’ and leave it at that, and unfortunately the label has become a backhanded compliment. We dismiss something as enigmatic rather than try and figure it out, and we reward art that reveals itself to us immediately, that tells us what its about, where it comes from, and why its here. ‘Enigmatic’ can be seen as being difficult and inaccessible, and god knows, I’ve been guilty of applying the latter label to something I didn’t think of as worthy of my time or investigation.
It’s a word that’s been applied to Harding in the past. Her earlier reticence in interviews, while perfectly understandable to me, equated a desire for privacy with a similar desire to be mysterious. Her malleable, shapeshifting voice only adds to that mystery, capable of stirring low notes and rapturous high notes, with more characters in between those extremes than you can name. While nothing about Designer is obvious, there’s nothing about this album that is closed off. Designer wants to be listened to, and relistened to. It wants you to figure it out, and to enjoy whatever the hell its about.
But while I’m figuring that out, there’s still so much surface to love in Designer. The entire album, co-produced with PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish, has an enveloping lushness that makes it suitable for that late night, slightly tipsy, walk home or a too-tired Sunday morning. You don’t just listen to the album, you spend time in its world, wandering around in it. The best part of a mystery isn’t the answer – it’s actually the time you spend getting there. Designer values each part of the mystery equally; the question, the journey, the answer, and it’s so rare to hear music that values all three parts equally.