Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
Much is made of Aldous Harding’s predilection for being kind of a weirdo, emphasis on kind of. Her records aren’t so avant-garde as to not fit comfortably within the landscape of sophisticated pop music made for grown-ups, but they do push boundaries when it comes to how that sort of music is usually presented. Mostly this is based on the way Harding chooses to use her voice: in dramatic, formalized swoops and whispers that pull tightly against the nodding familiarity promised by the simplicity of the songs: usually, strummy guitar or piano-based affairs played with a light touch.
Though Harding’s approach might be unkindly interpreted as a performer’s gimmick, surface eccentricity has never been the distinguishing feature of Harding’s music—that would be her ambition. This woman wants to write a hit. If you didn’t know, that’s your fault entirely. Harding has been upfront about her desires as far back as “Living the Classics” off of 2017’s Party, where she fantasized openly about making it. It’s a goal she’s been willing to put in the work for, moving in on her target with eagle-eyed focus throughout her releases on 4AD. On her latest release, Warm Chris, Harding comes closest to hitting the mark, even she arrives, as should be expected by now, in a completely sideways manner.
Warm Chris builds upon the world Harding created on 2019’s Designer, which was a frothy, friendly cocktail hour of a record so amiable it felt like something of an about-face from the raw chamber pop of Party. On Warm Chris, Harding retains Designer’s most whimsical, crowd-pleasing elements while hearkening back to both Party’s up-close aesthetic intimacy and understated baroqueness. Here Harding’s songs lean towards the loopy, but they’re always arranged with an ear to brightness, like sunshine pop minus the frilliness. The instrumental palette on Warm Chris is spacious and bare—acoustic guitar, piano, an organ, or some horns here and there—a nearly empty windswept room around which Harding’s voice careens like a jovial phantom.
Like on Party, Harding’s voice is foregrounded, and she wastes no time in using it in elastic, freeform ways. Sometimes it’s straightforward and pretty (“Ennui”); other times so comically nasal it almost seems like a joke (“Leathery Whip”). The record is brimming with what seem at first blush to be love songs, delivered in a melting voice so squishy it seems as if Harding has marbles in her mouth. You might infer that the playful and pastoral Warm Chris is the happiest of Harding’s oeuvre so far—except the longer you listen, the eerier and more dissonant the music becomes, each deceptively simple layer revealing just a little more poison beneath the sugar. “Of all the ways to eat a cake/ This one surely takes the knife,” Harding sings on “Passion Play,” an observation that in less capable hands would be dreadfully twee. But Harding delivers it in a controlled warble, the burbling chaos at the edges of her voice hinting at a darkness beneath the childlike affectation. It’s a line she toes throughout the fascinating, appealing Warm Chris, a record no less “weird” than anything Harding has put out, but certainly the most weirdly versatile.