Aldous Harding – Warm Chris

No stranger to incomprehensible visual metaphor, Aldous Harding wears a blonde wig and a lizard tail in the video of “Lawn”, the capricious beach samba launched to announce the arrival of his fourth album. “Can you imagine me being just outside and free?” asks the 31-year-old. “Doors are the way you go / Open them for me”.

Listen to the strange strangeness Warm Chrisit is not easy to imagine how much the artist born Hannah Top can get. The Cryptic Crossword Lyrics and Mean Sitting Voices That Defined 2019 Art Deco-tonic Designate are even more apparent on a record that welds the shape-shifting art of Cindy Sherman to the musical surrealism of Zygotic mynci of Gorky, with a disturbing undertow of bossa nova. Resolutely following a logic of its own, one has the impression by John Cale Baroque costume party Paris 1919, scripted by Today’s Day Collaterlie Sisters. Idiosyncratic has been Harding’s modus operandi since her mid-twenties when she reneged on her plan to become a veterinarian, fearful of following her folk parents into a marginal life. Born and raised in Lyttleton, New Zealand, she first appeared on record as a teenager, guesting on her mother Lorina’s 2004 album, clean breakbut made a name for herself musically with her 2014 self-titled album, choosing Aldous Harding as a singing pseudonym, apparently because “Aldous” sounded like “a manly Alice”.

The through-the-glass quality of those early songs was acclaimed by pixie folk extremists, with 4AD picking it up for 2017. Party. Her female-owned live performances and pleasantly eerie videos have helped garner a sizable following ever since, despite her reluctance to explain exactly what she sings about. True to form, Warm Chris comes without a relatable story, while its Q&A session with Uncut boils down to a good-natured but resolute “going away”. Venture into its world in total immersion and you have to accept that there is no map.

However, some topographical details of Warm Chris are familiar, but while it was recorded in the same studio as Designate (Rockfield), with Harding’s regular producer John Parish and a similar set of players, he revels in a subtle deviation from an already Samuel Beckett– worthy script. If its predecessors had a sleek monochrome palette, Warm Chris has unexpected flashes of 70s living room color; opener china horse rhythms “Boredom”the screaming electric guitar bolts exploding in the Bambi-legged title track, the melodies from the ITV sitcom of “TIC Tac”.

Harding, meanwhile, takes her voice to even more unusual places; a high-pitched moan flickering on “Warm Chris”a beautiful southern drawl “She’ll Come Around the Mountain”a german hausfrau bark on “Passionate Baby”and what looks like a Stars in their eyes Patti Smith on his black gaze closer “Leather Whip”. Perhaps it’s an expression of a reluctance to settle down in a position – perhaps significantly, she has returned to New Zealand in recent months after a spell in Cardiff. As she sings on her Syd Barrette samba, “Watch the Henry Moore”“I need freedom”.

However, Warm Chris shines with his willingness to make seemingly deliberate decisions. “If you ain’t for me, I guess I ain’t for you,” she sings “Lawn”, restrained – not for the first time – against the weight of the expectations of others. Featuring upright piano and horn parts straight out of the early 1970s Kevin Ayers record, opening “Boredom” looks like a rolling look at the snaps of artistic angst, with a sharp dig at Instagram conformity (“No ‘one look’ and some sly fucking filler, don’t lie to me”), while the clip-clop rhythm “TIC Tac” is a more determined stretch to breathe. Possessing a kind of very Welsh saudade, Harding aspires to put several kilometers between itself and the outside world. “Revelers, they all want to start with me,” she sighs, Mark E Smith-ishly. “All I want is an office in the country.”

The routines of personal relationships are no less oppressive. Harding mimics some sort of burnt fast-setter on a desiccated Shangri-Las shuffle “Fever”, as she watches the hell of a deal cool to embers. “I still stare at you in the dark/Looking for that chills in the nothing”, she sings between a few wake-up horns. “You know, my favorite place is the start”.

That urge to hit the eject or rewind buttons is just as strong on situation comedy “Passionate Baby”, Harding’s Stentorian narrator prefacing his curious inclination for sensual freedom with the words, “Well, you know I’m married/And I was bored to death”. There is a wedding in the cinematic lament “She’ll Come Around the Mountain” too, Harding’s Discomfited, Blanche Dubois finds herself aggrieved at the altar as she laments: “When I started I had much more than now”. However, if familiarity tends to breed contempt in the world of Warm Chrisloneliness comes with its own problems, Harding’s Broken Broadway Lament “Bubbles” striving to put a brave face on the quiet indignity of loneliness (“I’m fine, I’m a winner”).

Warm Chris is a recording that searches for exits and plots escape routes, but a malevolent kiss “Leather Whip” is a fearsome acknowledgment familiar to 30-year-olds that contact with the dirty world of death and taxes may not be avoidable. Curled up under an elementary organ, it appears as a declaration of independence, a rejection of conventional objectives. “I am a little older but I remain unchanged”, Harding say again. “And the people who want me don’t have the things I’m after.” Sleaford Mods barker Jason Williamson then joins the backing vocals as Harding’s the mantra memento mori comes into play: “Here is life with its leather whip/Here is life with its leather whip”.

Gravity gets us all in the end, so, but Warm Chris is a testament to a messy, creative life, close mic and cinema verité production showcasing all the deliberately wonky edges of Harding’s songs. As with the PJ Harvey of white chalk, Harding goes wherever his voice takes him, and like another apostate traditionalist Richard Dawson, she is comfortable picking up brilliant bits of melody on the hard shoulder. As a result, these songs demand special attention but – like the messy universe that surrounds them – don’t necessarily demand decoding.

“I want to play with something that wants to play backwards,” Harding Recount Irish weather in 2019, doing his best to explain his relationship to his work. “I don’t want to play with something that is dead.” Slippery and engaging, sure of its ugliness, Warm Chris take up this challenge. There’s no redemptive story arc, no hard-earned wisdom, just the artist’s sense of escapology, Harding squirming out of whatever bag she finds herself in. Hard pleasure is hard to find, because The slots sang a long time ago, but Harding has so many. Given its evolution from disc to disc, it may not linger long in this place. Where “out and free” will take her next is a tantalizing question. The half-woman, half-lizard of the “Lawn” video is just another skin to peel off. The doors come off their hinges and she slips through.

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