Aldous Harding currently occupies a status of reverence few New Zealand artists achieve locally. Her last album Party is already something of a touchstone of Kiwi singer-songwriter music, and the anticipation for the follow-up, Designer, has been electric. It hasn’t been a long wait - not even two years - so going into the new album I was very interested to hear what has changed in that short time, especially considering the bleak end-of-relationship context of its predecessor. The answer is a lot. Harding has expanded her musical palette while retaining her strongest elements and made a second instant classic in a row.
Designer is more surreal, more psychedelic, more obscured. The instrumental arrangements are richer and warmer... creating a psychedelic world where the bizarreness is achieved with careful arrangements rather than technological effects.
While Party released in 2017 was confronting, emotional and realist, Designer is more surreal, more psychedelic, more obscured. The instrumental arrangements are richer and warmer, featuring full drum kits, percussion, string and brass arrangements, flutes, piano and layered vocals, creating a psychedelic world where the bizarreness is achieved with careful arrangements rather than technological effects. Every instrumental component has the mark of being carefully and consciously designed, every little shaker part and piano line carrying musical weight. It’s a delight to hear, with nothing overused and nothing overstaying its welcome.
The music is more immediate as well, due to a new-found groove and some brilliant production work. Almost every instrument is presented dry and up-close like it’s in the room with you, and the vocals even closer in your eardrums. It’s an aggressively intimate mix, and it works wonders.
Emotionally also, Designer is much warmer and less bleak than its predecessor. This is established right from the opening Fixture Picture, which kicks us off with a drum kit and strummed steel guitars playing a breezy mid-tempo groove. It bears the influence of 70’s Laurel Canyon folk, a laid-back summery track with an addictive hook and a gorgeous string arrangement. It also introduces another new element to Harding’s musical setup; the male backing vocals which thicken up many of the album’s hooks.
The title track continues this apparent new direction, a mid-tempo strummed groove similar to the opener. The drums are used perfectly on these songs, a dry, in-the-room sound that doesn’t fill up the track too much like most beats. The percussion, breathy brass and playful piano make the song another delight.
Third track Zoo Eyes continues an epic starting streak, slower and more contemplative than the first two. “What am I doing in Dubai/at the prime of my life/Do you love me?” ranks highly as far as opening lines go. The flute, organ and brass arrangement makes for her dreamiest musical moment to date, as her voice takes off into a mystical floaty chorus. These elements make me think of Magical Mystery Tour-era Beatles (“It’s the greatest show on earth you shall receive” goes the refrain), as well as the patient psychedelia of The Brian Jonestown Massacre.
... every melodic line falls with impact, and it grooves like nothing she [Aldous Harding]’s done before. The touches of brass, piano, and layered vocals are a masterclass in using restraint for maximum impact, and that earthy production elevates the tune from great to superb.
Treasure brings us back to familiar Aldous territory with its reserved nylon fingerpicking. Last track she was in Dubai - now she has “made it again/to the Amazon.” The array of male backing vocals really lift this song up sonically. Then we’re back up to energy with The Barrel. What a perfect choice of single - every melodic line falls with impact, and it grooves like nothing she’s done before. The touches of brass, piano, and layered vocals are a masterclass in using restraint for maximum impact, and that earthy production elevates the tune from great to superb.
Damn is the least interesting piece musically, but the droning piano line does a good job of shifting the focus to Harding’s lyrics, which have developed into a more complex and vivid world on this album. Across all the tracks unexpected words and phrases jump out, narrating the dreamy world the music establishes - ferrets, tambourines, Dubai, eggs, the Amazon, nuts, tattoos, “ugly sons”. As far as the delivery goes, what needs to be said - Harding is one of the best vocalists around, shaping each line with a different purpose.
After Weight Of The Planets, another nice groovy cut, we enter the album’s endgame and the mood changes. Heaven Is Empty is the darkest track, reaching back to the despair of Party with a solitary guitar and weepy dripping vocals. “Heaven is empty/nobody’s there/I brought my camera/it stayed in its bag”. I’m glad the album has a moment like this.
Then there’s Pilot, as satisfying a closer as I could ever have wished for. A lonely piano plays crude plonking chords, left plain and unaccompanied, while Harding sings so close to your ears you feel like she’s only connected to the musical backing by incidence. There’s something eerie about the unchanging repetitive chords, like a young child practising. The lyrics are spotlighted, a scattering of shifting images and situations (stand out - “I get so anxious I need a tattoo/something binding that hides me”.)
Rather than spreading changes in mood across the track-list, Aldous Harding arranges the album to follow an emotional gradient - comfort to uncertainty, company to isolation...
Left on loop, the return to the beginning of Fixture Picture drives home the album’s real strength - its linear development. From the summery grooves of the first few songs, lush and sonically colourful, it mellows slightly through the middle before reaching its end with two confronting bleak tracks completely free of musical adornment. Rather than spreading changes in mood across the track-list, Aldous Harding arranges the album to follow an emotional gradient - comfort to uncertainty, company to isolation (figuratively and literally in terms of musicians.) The final result is both a collection of unfeigned songs and a greater cohesive whole that is sure to go down as yet another milestone for New Zealand music.
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Released: 26 Apr 2019