1000 Albums Project

ALBUM 176

Designer, by Aldous Harding
Suggested by Paul Wray

Designer, by Aldous Harding, is my fourth Folk album.

I’ve previously stated that my relationship with Folk is rather fractured. Traditionally, I’ve little exposure to the classic sound, despite my dad being a fan of the genre. He liked Northern English Schmaltzy Folk almost exclusively, so I grew up knowing songs about toiling down t’pit and family and poverty and gout. I didn’t get the Bob Dylan experience, or Joni Mitchell or Leonard Cohen, or anyone cool.

As for contemporary folk… nope, I got nothing. Unless the Nineties counts as contemporary in this regard? I’ll give you The Levellers, and a smattering of Ani DiFranco, but that’s it. And if you’re looking for anyone in the 21st Century? Forget it.

I mean, what does folk even sound like these days? Is it still the domain of the guitar, the arran jumper, the finger-in-the-ear fiddle-dah-diddle-dah-yay? Is it still the purview of the politico, the agitprop, the dockside clandestine? Honestly, I had no idea what to expect

What I didn’t expect was a sensitive, intimate album full of flowering and delicate tracks.

The first surprise was that Aldous Harding is a woman. I envisioned a curmudgeonly fifty-something with an eclectic beard, only to discover a high and soulful female vocal that runs the full gamut of emotional range. Aldous’s voice is so close and personal, so high in the mix, that she sounds as though she’s in the room with you, stood at your shoulder to whisper-sing her breathy truths directly into you amygdala. She may lack the basic grasp of social distancing etiquette, but she more than makes up for it with her mellifluous and empathic delivery.

Lyrically, the songs are more cryptic than poetic or pretty. There’s a sense of story to them, but there’s nothing concrete which can be deciphered without multiple listens, a crib sheet, a sextant and a Ouija board. Songs like The Barrel, with lines such as “The wave of love is the transient hut / Water’s the shell, and we are the nut”, or the even more obtuse (and vaguely sexual) “Show the ferret to the egg”, are beautiful in their execution but impenetrable in their interpretation.

Musically, these songs are intricate and filigreed, with gently tweeting instruments that flit and dance like fairies. The spartan yet soothing music complements the vocals perfectly, and it’s never anything less than delicious. Actually, that’s not strictly true… there’s one song, Heaven is Empty, that extends the pared-back conceit to its logical conclusion, and backs a rather odd vocal with not quite enough guitars. This is, I feel, a rare misstep, but a misstep that is more than excused by tracks suck as Zoo Eyes, my personal favourite.

Aldous Harding feels fragile and precious, as if a stiff breeze or a spot of rain could whisk her away or dissolve her to nothing. I enjoyed Designer, and give it 7/10, but I doubt I could live in her world for more than a fleeting moment. I’d be forever on edge, walking on the skin of a soap bubble world that’s fit to burst beneath us.

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