Aldous Harding - Designer
Apr 26, 2019 (updated Apr 26, 2019)
We are nothing but a braid in the void, as the album cover indicates. The peculiar condition of our existence cries out for something: a story, a narrative, an explanation. Some clue or idea about what our existence could mean. Aristotle was the first to generalize the question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” My own question has always been the opposite: “Why is there nothing rather than something?” That is, given infinite time and unlimited resources why would a divine designer leave so much empty space? Where there is evidence of design, it is impressive, but on the whole why is there so little of it?

Everyone knows who Aldous Huxley is but his grandfather was T.H. Huxley, also known as “Darwin’s bulldog” and a chief critic of the design argument. But it was David Hume before him who first clearly pointed out that even if our world is the product of design that tells us nothing about the nature of the designer. The designer could be some immature deity and this world is merely a first draft. Or perhaps some superannuated deity who passed away before the design was complete. Or perhaps even some limited deity who did the best they could do but were hampered by a paradoxical limitation to balance good and evil in their design. And as it may have appeared to all of us at one time, this world could be the product of malevolent design. It’s supposed to hurt, and that’s why it does.

For Aldous Harding, this is her most coherent and provocative artistic statement to date. Others compare her to Kate Bush and Scott Walker, and that is fair, but the original muse here is Anne Briggs. I feel the spirit of Anne Briggs suffuses this record. The presence of Briggs comes to a peak on “Damn”, which is in fact the valley or base of the record. It is not an imitation of her voice but Harding channeling Briggs spiritually and vocally and the effect is astonishing. If you didn’t know the music of Anne Briggs before, now is the time to find out.

In interviews Harding has refused the offer to clarify or delineate the lyrics. They can mean anything the listener wants them to mean. But that refusal is itself the acknowledgement of the strange nature of design. It too can mean anything we want it to mean. The intentions or purposes of the designer may be irrelevant to the meaning we draw from the design. She knows this and her honesty does not permit her to say more, except in the case of “The Barrel” where the multi-storied nature of the song has been subject to overly reductive analysis. Yes, it really is about a neonate in the womb who contemplates strangling itself to death rather than being born, but it is also about the fate of the earth itself, our floating barrel in space, as well as contemplating the fact that we have the power to destroy what the ostensible designer created. Is that self-destructive power also part of the design?

Cosmological and theological bangles and threads abound in the songs, for example in the mention in “Zoo Eyes” (Zeus) of the “greatest show on earth”, an oblique reference to the anti-design book of the same title by Richard Dawkins, and the numerous references to "braids" and "braiding". I won’t spell them all out here but suffice it to say that while some records are not for the faint of heart, this one is not for the faint of mind. It is visceral, and challenges you to feel, but the real point is to rethink your ontology in a fundamental way. This may be the best record of the year. I think it is, but even if not, it is the smartest record of the year.

JohnLouisHoward's Tags
listen to Nick Drake too. this music is very character-driven and Harding changes her voice to sing from different character perspectives, just like Drake did (and Briggs to a lesser extent). that can be off-putting but it allows exploration of themes from multiple points of view. for me, this is an album full of questions and a few hard-earned wounds, but with no greater wisdom. by the time you reach "Pilot" it almost seems bereft of hope, and goes toward nihilism rather than gnosticism.
also, thanks for the kind words about the review.
Thanks for sharing this, I think I needed a little more language to help crack into this one. Also, this review is beautifully written, really good work!
thank you!
thanks @scar
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