Aldous Harding Finds Freedom in Stylistic Collage on 'Warm Chris'

BY Safiya HopfePublished Mar 22, 2022

New Zealand's Aldous Harding is a master of negative space. Her prowess is quiet: she weaves intimate walls in hushed proclamations, pauses, and sighs. Brief silences and muted splatters of percussion amplify the rich emotional crescendos of her songs, which often read like surrealistic diary entries, and at other times like letters written in dreams. She mixes metaphors, paints composite memories, and takes her inner child to shows. Her elegant bridging of the metaphysical and the mundane teems with images which seep into one another and grow, wobbling, like droplets of water. Her work is faithful to subtlety and prudence. Even in interviews she is soft-spoken but deliberate, appearing to measure each word: carefully, unblinking.

Her fourth album Warm Chris — the follow up to 2019's critically acclaimed Designer — is an exception. Here, Harding's power lies in where she frees herself rather than where she restrains herself. Whimsical, bizarre and somehow still rich with grace, Warm Chris is a stylistic collage that twists and turns defiantly at each moment categorization begins to feel plausible.

Harding has spent enough time meditating in raw, uncanny tongues about surrender, pleasure, and performance that it is only natural that she has found space, at long last, to play. Her second album Party — of which the title track was a lullaby that seemed at once to mourn past, present, and future — practically oozed melancholy, emulating the soulful folk of Karen Dalton and the stalking ambience of Portishead in accounts of loss and respite. Designer magnified solace in strange places, merging more expansive textures of brass and synthesizers with acoustic guitar.

Harding's bittersweet ruminations have often boasted a peculiar warmth, but Warm Chris — produced, as Party and Designer were, with John Parish — truly evokes celebration. "Cut it up / Put it in my hand / You've become my joy, you understand," Harding sings after the opening chords of "Ennui," which march gleefully toward anticipatory hums. "Got a little colour in the back / I love it."

It is not simply the thematic swapping of sorrow and solace for relief and hope that sets Warm Chris apart from Harding's last three records. Her songs still exist in an emotional world weighted by anxiety, absence, and the tension between desire and existential truth. In this world, though, these songs dance rather than pace — the inner child she crooned about on Designer mutters, smacks her lips, and stomps her feet.

In the span of only 10 tracks, Harding tries on a plethora of personas, proving the instrument of her voice to be a superpower of versatility. On the chorus of "Tick Tock," she teases and taunts, "Wanted to see me / Whatcha gonna do? / Now that you see me / Tick tock!" On "Fever," she speak-sings about disappointment and reunion with the soulful rasp of Lucinda Williams in a rolling sea of tin and brass. Even as she sings "I still stare at you in the dark / Looking for the thrill in the nothing," she sounds almost victorious.

On the stripped-down title track, Harding's voice takes on a flighty tremble reminiscent of Big Thief's Adrianne Lenker, while on "She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain" she adopts a Waxahatchee-esque twang as a banjo plucks shyly along with a piano in the background. "Passion Babe" sees her slide between a mumbling drawl and childlike exclamation in acrobatic leaps so subtle they almost sound effortless. On "Staring at the Henry Moore," Harding inserts the quack of a duck between verses that could have been sung by Vashti Bunyan. Her sure-footed vocal shifts vary so dramatically on the record that it is difficult, at times, to believe that she alone is singing.

The throughline is unmistakable, though, in her elastic voice and whimsy-fuelled instincts — she is free and she knows it. Without sacrificing the elegance for which she has been revered, Harding tries new palettes, painting impressions of small worlds in whatever textures emerge and trusting them as they do. Warm Chris is neither refined nor contained: it wanders and wonders, affirming the sheer joy of curiosity.

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