Aldous Harding uses oddness as both lure and armor. You can see it in her performances, which suggest a neurodiverse lexicon of emotions in her facial tics and physicality. And you can hear it in the language of Designer, her quizzically beautiful third LP, where she pivots artfully from folk eccentric to pop eccentric.
Harding’s from Christchurch, New Zealand — a far-flung spot that, before becoming yet another poster town for racist violence, was best-known for its thriving indie-rock community in the ‘80s and ‘90s, with bands like The Bats and Bailter Space, and the touchstone Flying Nun label, Harding’s first home. The singer’s got range, and she plays in it like a sandbox, pushing her contralto up to Kate-Bushy highs and Nico-conjuring lows. She also has an inviting sense of melody, seemingly rooted in the folk traditions of the British Isles, but which opens up on Designer with lilting grooves suggesting other islands, Caribbean and South Seas. John Parish, who produced Harding’s 2017 Party, returns to work with a broader palette, again conjuring the sort of darkly elegant power he’s channeled on recent PJ Harvey LPs.
Harding’s energy is different than Harvey’s, lighter, quirkier, more avine. Designer’s first single, “The Barrel,” is beguiling, slightly oblique, a song involving love and commitment that sets a surrealist table of objects: peaches, a ferret, an egg, a barrel. “Your stone looks hot as it starts to roll/We shared a meal and then you had to go” she sings on “The Weight Of The Planets,” tossing out more images over a burbling bassline and the occasional gull-screech of strings. Images recur throughout the album: water, stones, braids. Body parts are zoomed-in on: necks, knees, fingers, and especially eyes. Often words that seem chosen for sound more than meaning create logic anyway: see “Zoo Eyes,” which rhymes the title with “Dubai,” and offers couplets like “All fear is cream/ that sits above the classroom of your dreams.”
Even at its most incongruous, Harding’s imagery always feels like its plumbing emotions. See the album’s closing track, “Pilot,” a fragile piano ditty where Harding suggests anxiety, depression, and acute self-consciousness in her lower register against a Dali-esque canvas of imagery: an outfit that “blows in from the street;” a companion who slides “like a bangle down the days arm;” the need of “blood for the new erection.” In the final line, she sketches a feeling “like height under a pilot,” hovering above the chords. The feeling could be debilitating vertigo, or it it could be an empowering sense of soaring on the wings of one’s skills. Given Harding’s way of working, it’s probably correct to assume it’s a little bit of both.