Any attempt to pin down Aldous Harding is a foolhardy venture, especially when the New Zealand-born songstress is not predisposed to self-explanation.
Probed about the video for her recent single The Barrel - in which she moves oddly, dressed in a white ruff and topped with a tall, domed hat, and revealing a macabre blue mask at one point - she simply said, in an NPR interview: "I feel we're expected to be able to explain ourselves after we've worked the space and have purpose, you know, in a little bag that you carry around everywhere. But I don't necessarily have that in me."
So, more power to her listeners then. A scan of the YouTube comments for the clip reveals opinions as colourful as "a sleep paralysis demon", "high-fashion pilgrim realness" and "it's like an alien entity has finally found a host and is trying to dance like a human". One viewer, somewhat cynical, suspects: "She is taking the piss out of something, I just don't know what."
Such interpretations are legitimate as far as her third album, Designer, is concerned. Whereas her breakthrough, 2017's Party, was made in a place of "heaviness", Designer, also produced by John Parish, is full of light - but the light does not mean everything is hunky-dory.
The title track switches between two modes - 1970s-styled piano balladry and strummy melancholia - as Harding utters a string of non sequiturs: "That visionary shimmer/Do not lose your younger eyes/Last thing, it could work with your ugly son/Give up your beauty." Who, indeed, is the Designer? Is it a godly presence? The creative artist? An actual fashion designer? Who knows.
Harding's phrasing remains defiantly unnaturalistic - a rebuke to the artifice of confessional realism - and belies exquisite harmonies.
Her vocal witchiness is considerably toned down and made all the more affecting when it is sparingly employed. "Why, what am I doing in Dubai?" she asks strangely in the slumberous curio Zoo Eyes, her voice an octave lower, manlier even. This is contrasted with the childlike wheeze in the chorus "Ask for me and you shall receive". Life is both beautiful and scary, the song seems to say, and the realisation is unsettling.
The ambivalence cuts deep in the piano dirge Treasure, where she sings about making it again "to the Amazon", as if she is fleeing the clutches of law or vengeful love. Double-tracked, she sings sweetly some of the album's saddest and eeriest lyrics: "Will you die on the vine, choosing it over?/And when you bleed out, you'll know better than that."
In Damn, a lovely chamber piece pivoted on a sustained piano groove, Harding taunts and teases like a coltish chanteuse: "Can you make a space on the seat?/A box-like shape for a silly woman?"
The autumnal longing haunts the jazzy Weight Of The Planets too, as she purrs like a latter-day siren while casually flipping gender roles. "I can do anything/No one is stopping me," she assures, slipping out of your grasp once more.