In Aldous Harding’s video for “The Barrel,” Harding, a singer and songwriter from New Zealand, stares into the camera. She stares hard. She stares in a way that could only be described as “Lynchian” — half-smiling, never breaking her gaze, holding her eyes on us for so long that, even through the medium of music video, we start to feel uncomfortable. In some shots, she stares at something off-camera, and that’s discomfiting, too.
In the video, Harding is dressed as a pilgrim who has gone to an expensive art school. She is doing a strange shimmy dance with her shoulder. She is surrounded by white sheets — like, an entire room full of white sheets. As the video winds down, Harding’s enormous hat drops off of her head, and there is a face on top of her head. Harding’s second face is blue and gnomelike, and that face stares at us, too, as Harding’s dance becomes even stranger. For reasons I can’t even begin to describe, Harding’s video for “The Barrel” makes dread well up in the pit of my soul. It makes no sense. It’s one of the year’s best music videos.
I don’t know what the video for “The Barrel” means, or if it means anything at all. Harding doesn’t seem to know, either. Talking to the Australian website Stack, Harding said, “It was just an idea, like everything else I do. It was just an idea.” Harding is right; it is an idea. It’s an expert realization of an idea that you and I will probably never understand. And if you’ve ever known how it feels to be inextricably drawn to something that resists all your best attempts to understand it, then you are probably ready for Aldous Harding’s music.
Designer is Harding’s third album, and like the two that preceded it, it’s absolutely gorgeous, at least on a surface level. Harding, the daughter of a folksinger, is at least a little bit of a folksinger herself. Her music rests on delicate little details: lightly strummed acoustic guitars, brushed cymbals, softly tapped bongos and xylophones, piano lines that move like ripples across a lake’s surface. Opening track “Fixture Picture” has a bassline that reminds me of Air’s “All I Need,” that pre-millennial classic of soft-focus calm. Harding sings in a precise, chilly half-whisper, in an odd and particular register that calls to mind Nico and Björk and Kazu Makino. As a singer, Harding is every bit as idiosyncratic as those three singers. But those three all came upon their relative weirdness, at least in part, by accident; all three speak English as a second language. Harding doesn’t. Her weirdness is intentional.
That sense of being off extends to the way Harding writes, too. There are moments where the words she’s singing have their own logic. There are breakup lyrics: “Glad I pulled the reins on this thing when I did / I see no reason to go ahead with it.” There are quizzical laments: “There’s a definite vibe / You can’t be pure and in love.” There are parts about how a generalized confusion can creep into all areas of your life: “Why? / What am I doing in Dubai? / In the prime of my life / Do you love me?”
More often, though, there are lines that will have you doing double takes at the lyric sheet: “The wave of love is a transient hut / The water’s the shell and we are the nut,” “All rain is beads / That drain to where the Mother shell meets the sea.” Are these references to things I don’t recognize? Did Harding merely pick these word combinations because they sound right? There are plenty of records with opaque lyrics, but most of those lyrics just breeze past me. Harding’s feel important. They demand analysis even as they keep us at arm’s length.
Designer is a hushed, quiet album. It sounds good at night, on headphones, while you are attempting to unwind after putting yourself through whatever drudgery you put yourself through during the day. John Parish, the PJ Harvey collaborator, produces, just as he did on 2017’s Party, Harding’s last album. Every song has a subtle groove, a definite rhythmic pulse. So it sounds great. And Harding delivers every line with quiet confidence, like she’s whispering it directly into your ear. Or like she’s staring a little too hard at you while she delivers it. And all of it works something like that video for “The Barrel.” You might not understand it, but it will take you away to someplace else.
Designer is out 4/26 on 4AD.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Schoolboy Q’s as-yet-unheard Crash Talk.
• The Mountain Goats’ lavish “dragon noir” exploration In League With Dragons.
• King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard’s psych-rock boogie excursion Fishing For Fishies.
• Otoboke Beaver’s wild expressionist punk attack Itekoma Hits.
• Sunn O)))’s pretty drone-metal excursion Life Metal.
• Kevin Morby’s ruminative classic-rock double album Oh My God.
• Marissa Nadler & Stephen Brodsky’s dark folk/metal zone-out Droneflower.
• Murg’s cosmic black metal wallow Strävan.
• Craig Finn’s thoughtful and ruminative I Want A New War.
• SOAK’s melodic, personal return Grim Town.
• Billie Marten’s warm, dreamy Feeding Seahorses By Hand.
• Pure Bathing Culture’s shimmery indie reverie Night Pass.
• Guided By Voices umpteenth power-pop bugout Warp And Woof.
• BAILEN’s country-laced debut Thrilled To Be Here.
• Local Natives’ melodic indie harmony-fest Violet Street.
• The Cranberries’ posthumous goodbye In The End.
• Smoulder’s epic doom trudge Times Of Obscene Evil And Wild Daring.
• Foxygen’s dazed psych-twee amble Seeing Other People.
• The Game Of Thrones companion-piece compilation For The Throne.
• Jackie Mendoza’s LuvHz EP.
• The presumable conclusion of Kevin Abstract’s EP trilogy.