The New Zealand singer/songwriter's third studio effort, and her second time working with producer and frequent PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish, Designer eschews the post-last call darkness of 2017's Party for something a bit sunnier, though no less peculiar. Aldous Harding remains an enigma; she's an elusive but captivating presence who can invoke both a nervous giggle and a slack-jawed tear via her careful pairing of abstract lyrics and subtle hooks. Her off-kilter songs have something in common with the knotty confections of Welsh pop innovator Cate Le Bon, but Harding's willingness to wrap her sibylline words in such agreeable melodies gives her a bit of an advantage. Take the opening stanza of the easy-on-the-ears "Zoo Eyes," which wonders "Why? What am I doing in Dubai?/In the prime of my life/Do you love me?," or the closing verse of the spare and heartbreaking "Heaven Is Empty": "If a big cold bird tried to bring me a baby/I feel I would get on its back/kissing his neck/breathing the down/kissing the down/and whisper softly/I don't want entry/that place is empty." Both songs exude a sort of existential malaise, but also a propensity towards transference. Harding has stated in interviews that her ideas are, simply put, just ideas, and more often than not it's her inclination to simply run with them rather than search for deeper meaning. Still, there are sharp observations to be found throughout the LP's nine tracks -- "When you jump up and down your chains almost sound like a tambourine" -- and incisive examples of pop acumen -- "The Barrel" is a warm '70s pop gem that just happens to contain impenetrable lyrics and feature a mesmerizing video of a dancing Harding dressed in what looks like a nun's habit with a tube of toothpaste for a hat that eventually disappears and is replaced by a garish blue monster mask. A singular talent, Harding seems to have hit her stride on album number three, and while the darkness of previous efforts is still pervasive, Designer feels like a summer record, though it's probably best suited for dusk.
by James Christopher Monger