The video for ‘The Barrel’, the lead single from Aldous Harding’s third album, finds the New Zealand singer-songwriter performing strange dance moves in an outsize Pilgrim hat. It has a light hearted aesthetic that comes as a surprise to those familiar with the other-worldly, gothic folk that marked her previous work.
Its breezy sensibility reflects the tone of the track, which has a richness borne of full band arrangements. Teetering between upbeat and melancholy, the loping bass and shaker lend it a beat that almost justify Harding’s choreography.
These qualities are indicative of the majority of Designer, which was written on the road and recorded with John Parish. Perhaps in reaction to the solitary life of a touring artist, she’s surrounded herself with a handful of musicians including Huw Evans (H. Hawkline) and Stephen Black (Sweet Baboo).
There was a move towards additional players and textures on 2017’s Party, although the mood of the release remained unrelentingly stark. Here, the feel is significantly warmer and has roots in ’70s weird folk. ‘Fixture Picture’, for instance, is punctuated by the folksiness of Clare Mactaggart’s violin, and the backing vocals on the standout ‘Treasure’ afford companionship to its relatively simple arrangements. The jazz-folk title track, meanwhile, flows like designer silk despite a slightly eccentric structure that continually breaks down to add or subtract instruments and shift its emotional mood.
The ambition of the release is more subdued than its predecessor – which encompassed folk, jazz and chanteuse – but its move towards a more fulsome sound is married to a newfound ease in her diction. More natural sounding than before, it feels like while Harding pronounced her words like they were foreign objects before, she’s finally mastered English as a first language and sings in one unified voice.
Her enunciation remains as clear as ever, giving full scope to her conversational and at times elliptical lyrics. “I get so anxious I need a tattoo/ Something binding that hides me,” she confesses in a sonorous voice on the plink-plonk piano of ‘Pilot’, the image unwinding an entire backstory in the listener’s mind.
The track closes the album alongside the spectral ‘Heaven Is Empty’, both of which are most obviously cut from the same cloth as Party. It’s a strange choice of running order, positioning her looking backwards rather than forwards, despite her positive assertion on ‘Weight Of The Planets’ that, “I can do anything/ No one is stopping me”.