Designer (4AD/Remote Control)
In advance of this album the songs The Barrel and Fixture Picture suggested some significant changes to the Aldous Harding modus operandi. Basically, it looked like the New Zealander (who is also known as Hannah Topp) had slightly upped the bpms and instrumentation, lightened the intensity, and begun to push some, dare we say it, pop.
Fixture Picture has the tempo and the ambient tone of a drifting punt on a river that hadn’t seen a tidal surge in centuries, Harding’s voice high and floating, the backing male voices almost cooing, and the violin and cello more inclined to soothe. It is quite beguiling, siren-calling you from the shore as it passes.
The sliding/shuffling rhythm of The Barrel - somewhat reminiscent of Joan As Policewoman’s sultry soul but also of Bryter Later Nick Drake - never breaks into dance by any means but if Fixture Picture is drifting, The Barrel is happily loping down a wide path.
The mix of low murmuring male and high, child-like female voices in the background contrast with her very foregrounded deeper voice; the interjection of deep woodwind and a flash of electric guitar, contrast with the picked out piano and gently persistent acoustic guitar.
When the album proper is heard, the title track appears to confirm this shift. The certainty in the bass drum, the elevated tenor of the guitar and the way the bass works to encircle the piano, make the woody percussion feel like a dancer on top of the whole enterprise. And this while Harding’s voice affects a guilelessness that is quite deliberately charming.
But wait. The picture, like Harding’s work overall, is more subtly complex, more enigmatic than that.
As Designer (track two, after Fixture Picture) plays out its final 45 seconds or so, there’s a softening of this initial impression, the temperature cooling and the light dimming, so that when Zoo Eyes begins it feels like night has come in suddenly. Harding’s voice is slower and deeper and then high and dreamy, in a conversation that feels like push and pull, while the drums pull down and flutes curl higher.
The falling away of certainty gathers some pace as the music slows down. On either side of The Barrel, firstly Treasure is built on solid piano chords and nylon string acoustic, her voice carrying the implication of a question without ever forcing the issue within the quite beautiful atmosphere, then Damn, with its stately piano progression and Harding coming on like June Tabor (simultaneously imperial and vulnerable) has an unquantifiable ache. But rather than its expected dissolution into a definite darkness, the saxophone and woodwind hold the shape, hold the mood.
If Weight Of The Planets balances between open window (the optimistic bass, the practically buoyant piano) and closing door (the tense glance of the strings, the hushing direction of the voice), the husky air of Heaven Is Empty has the song hovering between a widening pit seeking your surrender and a space in the distance calling your name.
What does it all mean? Do not look for answers in her lyrics for that way lies not madness but circles, endless circles of meaning. Harding’s words play on the edge of understanding, making sense until they don’t, which is when you realise that their intentions are never actually made clear.
That’s not a bad thing: they sound good, they feel good in the mouth singing along, and their storytelling leaves room for your interpretation. This feels like an album taking swan dives into and sometimes over an emotional dislocation, or emotional separation. It could be breakup, it could be isolation, it could be self-examination. And sometimes it probably is all three. But who knows?
Even the closing Pilot, which seems like the closest to a wrapping up of mood (“I don’t know how to behave,” she says, possibly in warning or maybe acceptance), takes you into its confidence but not its inner workings as lines tumble into each other as if randomly allocated or unconsciously attracted to each other.
The fact, the oddly satisfying fact, about all this is you have to trust your gut rather than your mind with Aldous Harding. And after three albums, each more intriguing and impressive, I’m more than happy to do that.