ALDOUS HARDING – ” Warm Chris “

Posted: June 9, 2022 in MUSIC

Not everything has to come to a logical conclusion; not everything needs to be about something. In her lecture “The Sentence Is a Lonely Place,” the writer Garielle Lutz explains her fondness for language where “the sentence is a complete, portable solitude, a minute immediacy of consummated language.” By that, she means that language, for some, is at its best when it can be isolated, when it takes on a sort of synesthetic, acoustic resonance. You can apply this terminology to the song writing of New Zealand’s Aldous Harding, who, for four albums, has made folk music with a conceptual weight that’s difficult to categorize or assign to any established narrative. Her latest album, “Warm Chris“, is a record of the portable solitude that Lutz writes about: It is opaque, surreal, and above all, lonely.

At first blush, Warm Chris is almost a discouraging listen. Its soft, slightly psychedelic folk pop is deceptively thorny and dense. You have to learn how to listen to it, kind of like how you have to teach yourself how to read Samuel Beckett or Renata Adler. It is less accessible than 2019’s Designer: Most of the pop hooks and acoustic bass drops are gone. It moves slowly, and the music flourishes where you least expect it. A song like “Ennui” builds in waves, with an arrangement that snakes from strident pianos to squeezes of baritone sax. Harding’s voice sounds plucked from a dream, growing more awake as the song progresses. “No one look/And a canny fucking fill/Don’t lie to me!” she sings in one moment. It doesn’t really make sense, but it’s not supposed to: Harding wants you to find your own logic. “I just want everyone to feel like a philosopher. You put on a record, and that record belongs to you,” she said in a recent Pitchfork interview.

Harding is a painstaking songwriter, even though her lyrics tend to veer toward disorder. At times, the vantage point can feel almost dissociative. On “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain,” she subverts a traditional song title into something alien and mournful. Banjos and horns bloom brilliantly as Harding sings about love, and her words are soft and searching, as if she were narrating the view through a train window. On the title track, her voice drops from soprano to alto and she sings about watching paper planes burn. Her delivery almost recalls a lullaby, and the tape hiss in the background is as gentle and constant as the sound of waves heard from within a seaside home.

For all her inscrutable intensity, there are also moments of levity and light. “Lawn” is sneaky and surreal, the kind of song that demands you put on vintage Mary Quant and go boogie—or turn into a human-sized gecko wearing Twiggy eyeliner, which is what happens to Harding in the video. On “Leathery Whip,” her voice bends abruptly from the sound of a long-haired songwriter living in Laurel Canyon circa 1972 to that of the chipmunk outside her window. “Here comes life with his leathery whip/Here comes life with his leathery leathery!” she exclaims, joined by the flat, freaky baritone of Sleaford Mods’ Jason Williamson. She draws out her words as she sings, blowing up vowels like twisty balloons. It’s funny yet vaguely threatening, like the last thing you’d hear before Harry Houdini saws you in half.

The lilt of her New Zealand accent gives an odd, familiar poetry to the words “cheap wig” – it’s just the kind of crisp, slightly absurd imagery often found in her lyrics.

It was here that Harding finished writing the bulk of her fourth album “Warm Chris“, bunkering down with Jessie and her mother, Lorina, during the first of 2020’s lockdowns, before heading to Monmouth in Wales to record with John Parish, her long time producer with whom she shares an almost wordless rapport. (“Our gifts have a really lovely way of communicating without us,” she says of Parish, who also worked on albums “Party” and “Designer“.)

A week out from the album’s release, she’s back home again. Birdsong rings loudly in the long, full gaps between words as Harding thoughtfully coaxes out each sentence – some people talk just to fill out the silence, Harding is happy to sit in it.

If there’s a beguiling opacity to her public statements, it’s in step with her lyrics. On “Warm Chris” she ranges from breezily evocative similes (“The weather opened up like a birthday card,” she sings on second single “Fever”) to more obscure reflections (“Here comes life with his leathery whip”), but even more so than her earlier albums, it’s less about what the words mean than how they feel when Harding sings them.

“For this album I was a lot less focused on ‘poetry’, as I understand it,” she says. “I was more focused on phonics, pure phonics. Letting sounds stand alone as poetry against their background, just the sound of the word, rather than people knowing [the meaning].

“I use my voice like language or clothing,” she says, of the slippery character of her vocals. “I understand that that’s really interesting to people … I’m sort of like the Jim Carrey of the indie world or whatever.

“I use whatever sounds I need to fill the gaps in my musical universe. I make songs that I want to hear, how I get there really does feel handed to me.”

I wonder aloud if part of people’s fascination with her inscrutability – in her lyrics, her stage presence, her surreal video clips – stems from the authenticity listeners usually expect from singer-songwriters.

The sound of “Warm Chris” is sparse and oblique, and trying to anchor yourself in Harding’s lyrics can feel like organizing a narrative from the shape of passing clouds. But that’s also where its brilliance lies, what makes this some of Harding’s best song writing yet. “Warm Chris” asks you to surrender catchiness and legibility and think instead about how a lyric like “sometimes shepherds have it right” (from “Staring at the Henry Moore”) might also be infused with inexplicable melancholy. Or why on “Lawn,” you have to suppress a giggle when Harding rhymes “They don’t mean a thing to me” with “All these lamps are free!” She favours this kind of free association, unconnected turns of phrase that synthesize the strange, lonely resonance of staring at a piece of abstract art or visiting an empty beach in winter. These are concrete images, but “Warm Chris” isn’t explicit about anything: The feelings you have when you experience these songs are yours alone.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.