Artists create. Performers put on an act. Agency matters. Explanations don’t. These are some of the conclusions you could draw from Aldous Harding’s enigmatic third album, Designer, a record released to wide critical delight (and some bafflement) at the end of April, which should bolster Harding’s burgeoning renown.
Events, Harding seems to imply, happen by design on her watch, something made plain on this first night of the singer-songwriter’s sold-out European tour. Harding might look like an ordinary human in her 20s, wearing white trousers and a dark top, picking sensitively at a guitar. But that is where folk-singer conventionality ends.
In the years since 2014, when her self-titled debut came out in her native New Zealand, Harding has become cult-famous for her intense performances. They draw attention to the fact of their own artifice and have garnered comparisons to uncompromising auteurs such as Kate Bush.
Harding has a punk rock stare and, on her stool, she adopts cowboy postures that would be called manspreading if they happened on the London underground. When she sings, she is legion: Harding can sound like a child, like Joanna Newsom, or a dissipated émigré such as Nico. This latest album marks Harding’s move to Cardiff with guitarist Huw Evans (who records as H Hawkline and has previously worked with Cate Le Bon) by introducing a gentle Welsh lilt here and there.
Tonight, Harding’s facial jujitsu is dialled down compared with two years ago, when she toured her previous album, the superlative Party (2017) and beguiled and confused viewers of Jools Holland in equal measure. In Brighton, she smiles frequently, but with so many teeth it’s not exactly friendly. The newest songs travel from austere piano balladry to bossa nova shake-outs.
With the addition of four new musicians, Harding’s vision is executed with flair, if not quite fluidity. It’s the very first night, and the 650-strong crowd might be rapt down at the front, but the set flows a little brackishly as Harding moves slowly from guitar to keys to standing at the microphone. There’s a lot of chat and shushing at the back of the room.
When there is radio silence between songs, Harding fully embraces it, rarely allaying its intensity. We learn only that she is glad to be here and the names of her new band members: classical harpist Mali Llywelyn in on keys, Gwion Llewelyn on drums, Harry Stevenson on bass and Evans on restrained electric guitar.
It is all a little awkward, but enthralling. Harding dances almost gesturally, recalling the GIF-like moves for her video to The Barrel, Designer’s addictive lead track.
When she shakes a maraca on the opening song, it’s like a study in maraca-shaking, as though she were a scientist examining a specimen. At the very end, for a brand new song called Old Peel “that isn’t on anything”, Harding really cuts loose and hits a mug with a drumstick. It feels like a double bluff. This, you can only assume, is Harding having fun, introducing lightness and shimmy to a body of work that has previously tended towards the austere and cryptic.
It’s still as bleak as hell in places, but it is perfectly possible to dance to much of this challenging artist’s latest and most musically accomplished work; a few go for it. The more obsessive stripe of fan, meanwhile, can pass pleasant hours nerding out about what it all means.
Harding’s work repays close attention, and you might argue that the conundrums she poses elevate her work to the realm of art. The Designer songs move towards the mainstream with a dressing of lush pop: this album’s nine crossword clues are as easy on the ear as they are mystifying on the brain’s pattern-recognition systems. The videos released thus far have often featured big hats and no easy answers. “Sometimes, as a reviewer, you have to put your hands up and say, ‘I’m sorry. These songs are beautiful but I don’t know why,’” admitted one journalist, when tackling Harding’s first album.
Occasionally, a clue leaks out. Harding told NPR that “I know you have the dove/ I’m not getting wet”, from The Barrel, has something to do with not falling for a magic trick, not “getting led along”.
Throughout this hour-long set, a few of the other songs from Designer start to unfurl a little. Damn is one track that really comes into its own, a mannered miniature made up of a four-note piano melody. Harding, whose real first name is Hannah, performs it like a Hungarian expat singing to herself. “Damn it, Hanny,” the songs ends. “When you jump up and down/ The chains almost sound like a tambourine.”
Resisting entrapment, being in charge of your own destiny, feels like a recurring motif. The Barrel puts it quite plainly. “When you have a child/ So begins the braiding/ And in that braid you stay,” Harding pronounces. Heaven Is Empty is another hypnotic song made of virtually nothing, with much implied. There’s just Harding, her guitar and, it seems, a desire for unconditional love accompanied by a fear of what that might lead to.
Throughout, though, you never lose sight of Harding’s increasing sense of control, the feeling that she is talking mostly to herself, that, sometimes, not everything has to mean something.
Zoo Eyes is a clear standout. The chorus finds Harding up in her gossamer soprano range, backed up by the meatiness of the band. Words and execution wink at showbiz: “It’s the greatest show on Earth you shall receive,” they intone. Harding grew up with a folk-singer mother who also acted and performed puppetry. It’s tempting to conclude that some of Harding’s multiple role-playing lessons might have been learned early.
Naturally, she sings Zoo Eyes’ arresting verses as though recovering from pneumonia. “Why,” she croaks, “what am I doing in Dubai?/ In the prime of my life?” Harding has confessed to not having been to Dubai; she is, though, in the habit of dropping exotic locales such as Thailand into her songs. Certainly, the pleasure the singer-songwriter takes in the way the “du” sound rolls off her tongue twice suggests that, sometimes, feeling is as important as meaning.