review: Aldous Harding’s utterly transfixing new album ‘Designer’
“What am I doing in Dubai?” This one one of may unanswerable questions in connection with Aldous Harding’s utterly transfixing new album, Designer. In this case, she asks it herself in the opening and the last seconds of “Zoo Eyes,” but listening to this record, and watching its Jodorowsky-inspired videos and seeing her live, you have a million questions. For the most part, though, she stays an enigma and likes it that way. “For some people, knowing all this stuff makes it more interesting. But I know what people are like,” she told The Line of Best Fit, “We take and we take and we take and then we blame the thing for its availability that we demanded. This is a game of longevity. Be patient.”
Aldous’ new album is a glorious, transfixing mystery and I’m not sure it’s one that needs to be solved. Her songs are rich with evocative lyrical imagery (“purple and fur / all sound is bees” is another line from “Zoo Eyes”) and even though, for the most part, I have no idea what her songs are about on a specific level, they are deep with feeling. Her magically expressive voice and phrasing plays no small part in this. At times she sounds like a pixie; elsewhere she is dark and bellowing like Nico, smoky and sultry, or singing in what might be her natural register. Sometimes, like on “Zoo Eyes,” they intertwine.
The melodies are great too. She worked again with John Parish, who produced 2017’s Party, but this time the album was at least partially recorded in Wales (where she’s living currently) with H. Hawkline and Stephen Black (Sweet Baboo), both of whom have been in Cate Le Bon’s band, as well as drummer Gwion Llewelyn who was in Race Horses and plays with Meilyr Jones. I may be reading into this, but a mossy, weird Welsh-ness seeped into the vibe here that had me not just thinking of Cate, but also Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci and Gruff Rhys. It’s a prettier, more percussive album than Party, too, especially on the album’s more musically playful songs like first single “The Barrel,” the loopy string-laden “Weight of the Planets,” and the bongos-and-marimba-fueled title track.
Matters of the heart seem to drive most of the songs, the end of a relationship in particular, though as I said she prefers metaphoric imagery like “the water’s a shell and we are the nut,” “All fear is cream / that sits above the classroom of your dreams,” and “a rock in my hand / a living mirror” over easy “this is how I feel” rhymes. The album’s most devastating song, though, is pretty clear and almost unbearably sad. “Heaven is Empty” is just Aldous and her guitar: “Heaven is empty / Nobody here / I brought my camera / it stayed in its bag.” I first heard those lines when I saw her perform the song at Rough Trade a few weeks ago and they’ve been rolling over in my head ever since. All of Designer sticks with you like that, never showing you all its cards, but never wanting you to leave the table. As Iris Dement sang, let the mystery be.
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