Music Reviews
Warm Chris

Aldous Harding Warm Chris

(4AD) Rating - 6/10

With her fourth LP, Warm Chris, Aldous Harding goes by the principle that any idea, no matter how simple, can turn into something more. Whatever meaning you ascribe to your art becomes secondary to the process of creating itself, and the joy of building something tangible and resonant is its very reward. Harding has a reputation for making music that sounds inscrutable upon first listen—hiding behind her own experiences—to the extent that it's easy to forget that her music can also be sublime and soul-enriching. If her 2019 LP, Designer, was an attempt at amplifying the more haunting qualities of her work, then her latest intends to be less constricting and more whimsical.

Following a similar trajectory to artists like Cate Le Bon and fellow New Zealander H Hawkline, Harding resorts to fanciful lyrical dalliances that can come across as profound when chopped up into little pieces of meaning. She doesn't give the impression that she's necessarily being intentional with her cryptic sentiments. When she sings “Cut it up/put it in my hand/you've become my joy,” on Ennui, we can sense her palpable need for love, one that inevitably comes to a bittersweet conclusion. Or how she plainly declares, “I got the love for you now,” on the trad folk-sounding title track, on which Harding tests the dynamics of balance in a relationship. These fragmented feelings she implies in her sentiments feel quotidian, but really, they unveil deeper truths.

Harding wants to say just enough while keeping us at arm’s length. And that's okay—at this point, we've come to expect her cunning charm to outwit us with her unpredictable segues. But what's surprising about Warm Chris is how she freely bends and modulates her voice in however way she pleases, sometimes to grating results. Harding is at her most playful, substituting her usually enchanting delivery for the sake of deconstructing it—whether she sings in a laconic lower register (Tick Tock), raises her voice to a mellifluous pitch (Lawn), drifts in and out of pitch (Passion Babe), or does a whispery warble (Staring at the Henry Moore). She's adapting from many familiar sources—sometimes in a very tasteful manner—but we're never quite sure what she's trying to accomplish.

For all of her unreadable tendencies, Harding controls her spacious, psych-leaning folk contours with simple elegance. Lawn, for instance, is a breezy delight, on which she brings a jazzy touch to its piano-driven groove. The dainty dissonance of Tick Tock works in contrast with its otherwise straight-laced melody, peppered in with Harding's brisk guitar fuzz. Even if, for an album littered with so much inventiveness, it’s disheartening to hear how the songs become barer and barer as it winds down. The Velvet Underground-like garage lilt of Leathery Whip is a late highlight—on which she echoes a pastoral folk sound—but can't manage to stay afloat once Harding pairs its mystifying aura with strained, high-on-helium vocals.

To her credit, Harding's singular brand of art-pop never sounds knotty—or difficult to read— from a performance standpoint. Her sturdy craftsmanship makes for an incredibly compelling listen, demonstrating how far she's gone from early, understated outings like 2017's Party. And while she's developed her voice in the process, Designer being a shining example of how she showed her many talents with oft-kilter confidence, Warm Chris blends spontaneity and rigidity all at once. “Passion must play or passion won't stay,” she sings on Passion Babe, alluding to the things that we do to keep love at bay. But this could also apply to Harding's creative spark this time around; in her all-consuming desire to be unique, she leaves us behind.