Let’s get this out of the way from the off – this isn’t as good as Aldous Harding’s last album Party. That work was a near-perfect collection of songs with immaculate performances and arrangements, combined with John Parish’s understated though more than significant production skills. Designer is a step away from the fragility that was at the core of Party as we are privy to seeing an artist develop and alter course as she sees fit. A simple repeat of her second album may have further developed the connection between artist and core audience, yet would have allowed neither to grow and to reach out for different things. Yet this feels like an opportunity missed. The disturbingly naïve narrative themes that often made Party a challenging listen (the title track’s lyrics of “He had me sit like a baby/ I looked just twelve/ With his thumb in my mouth” as a case in point) are widely absent from Designer, with Harding in a seemingly more confident, assured and mature place as an artist - though that isn’t to say that themes of childhood are entirely absent.

‘Fixture Picture’ opens proceedings and establishes a 1970s AOR feel for the album. There are echoes of Neil Young and Harry Nilsson here which were not present in her two earlier folk-tinged albums. The more simplistic and sparse musical arrangements of her 2015 self-titled debut and 2017’s Party have been replaced by more fully-realised and sophisticated band arrangement and orchestration, with an array of instruments utilised which likely reflects the bigger budget that a confident 4AD put into the making of the album. As is often the case, the sense of the intimately and achingly personal that made much of Harding’s earlier work essential has been lost with more players. She remains front and centre, yet the surrounding musicians form a barrier between listener and artist which was previously not there. For much of the album Harding seems emotionally distant and although the confessional tone of her lyrics is still in evidence, the overlaid harmonies weaken the overall effect.

The album’s title track follows and keeps the ‘70s vibe alive with echoes of Nick Drake’s Bryter Later album coursing through the song. It’s by this second track that you begin to realise that the tone of the production for the album is smoother – it feels cosy and warm, yet still lacking a sense of genuine amity. ‘Zoo Eyes’ returns to themes of childhood, as Harding sings that “I took my inner child to a show/ We talked all the way home,” and there is a melancholy feeling to this third track which is perfectly matched by both lyrics and musical arrangement. This is without doubt the pinnacle of the album as a whole, a beautifully realised song with an enchanting vocal performance that is spine tingling in its deliberately flat and restricted manner. The gorgeous fragility that stems from ‘Zoo Eyes’ continues into the next song, ‘Treasure’, but is dissipated by the underlying groove (yes, groove!) of the already-released track ‘The Barrel’, which does nothing for these ears. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why I find ‘The Barrel’ so objectionable, and it almost seems unfair to say that the song (and others on this album) are of a lower standard than Aldous Harding’s previous work (hell, I’ve definitely written better reviews before now). But, I guess I’ll just have to be unfair and state that I was hoping she would further expand her repertoire of bruising, honest and emotionally raw songs and take them up a notch, but the sheen and polish of the arrangements and production have taken something away from the personal connection, the soulfulness, of the work as a whole.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on ‘Weight of the Planets’, which would have undoubtedly made for a painfully exquisite track had it been realised with just her guitar and voice. The lyrical theme of isolation seems to have been missed by producer John Parish, as the inclusion of multiple musicians again strips away from the sense of being lost that is opined in the words of the song. This is juxtaposed with ‘Heaven is Empty’, which leaves Harding alone with her trusty guitar for (thankfully) the entire duration of the song. There is fret buzz and vocal sibilance on the recording of this track, which adds to its sense of authenticity, an idea of honest communion which is lacking on many of the album’s nine songs. This style is retained for ‘Pilot’ which closes the album – although here Harding switches a single guitar for a piano. Both of these songs make you ache for a return to this style of performance for an artist who, for me, is at her best when she is alone, and her vulnerability becomes an awe-inspiring strength.

Designer feels slightly disingenuous in places and the general impression that is left is of an artist not entirely sure of which direction suits her needs. Most of the production and unnecessary instrumentation on the album can be seen as an advance towards the FM radio crowd, those people who still think Badly Drawn Boy is a viable choice of artist to put on in the background when friends come around for a glass of wine or two. At their core, the songs are fundamentally concerned with unguarded and confessional intimacy yet the manner in which they are presented is a hindrance as, on the whole, there is a sheen to Designer which it could well do without.