Designer, the third album from New Zealander Aldous Harding, is so luxurious in its beauty that listening to it is like sinking into a cushion so soft it defies the laws of physics. And yet it’s not precisely right to describe the music contained therein as comforting. There’s a tension at play across the album, a sense that the songs are withholding surprises that might or might not hit with devastating impact. “Zoo Eyes” tilts toward the twee pop of the early two-thousands, but there’s a low threat of escalating into the realm of the boisterously baroque. Such a swerve — or lack thereof — is neither good or bad necessarily. The sustained possibility is where the magic lies.
All of the material is delivered by Harding with a poise that plays like forthright confidence. Designer has an air of nineteen-seventies singer-songwriter about it, albeit with less of the precipice dangling that was part of the era. It could have come out of a Laurel Canyon scene defined by peaceful inquisitiveness instead of hippie sex rules and drugs laid out like Brach’s assortments. The title cut is reminiscent of vintage Joni Mitchell with a swirl of dream pop added.
More recent artists come to mind, too. “The Barrel” suggests Sarah McLachlan had she taken the mystery and seduction of her earliest albums and gone in a far flintier, more interesting creative direction, and “Damn” is in the territory of Fiona Apple’s torch songs, including in the mingling of airy, elusive metaphor and disarming emotional directness (“There must be a reason, he said/ I know the reason, he meant”). All of Designer is also distinctively, uniquely Harding’s. There are kindred spirits, perhaps, and useful comparisons, but Harding establishes her considerable distance from other artists — influences or not — with greater conviction and authority than she evokes predecessors.
The album closes with the breathtaking delicacy of “Heaven is Empty” followed by “Pilot,” a probing, rich song that would raise pride and envy in Harry Nilsson. By the end, Harding has laid herself bare and maintained a sly distance from the listener, hinting that there is so much more to give, acres left undiscovered. Designer gives a lot. One of its primary gifts is the promise that the wealth of Harding’s talent just might have no limit.