No stranger to the incomprehensible visual metaphor, Aldous Harding is wearing a blonde wig and a lizard’s tail in the video for “Lawn”, the skittish beach samba released to herald the arrival of her fourth album. “Can you imagine me just being out and free?” the 31-year-old asks. “Doors are the way you leave/Open it up to me”.
Listening to the defiantly peculiar Warm Chris, it’s not easy to imagine how much more untethered the artist born Hannah Topp can get. The cryptic crossword lyrics and séance medium voices that defined 2019’s Art Deco-toned Designer are even more apparent on a record that welds the shape-shifting artistry of Cindy Sherman to the musical surrealism of Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, with an unsettling bossa nova undertow. Determinedly following a logic of its own, it feels like John Cale’s baroque costume party Paris 1919, scripted by The Day Today’s Collaterlie Sisters. Idiosyncratic has been Harding’s modus operandi ever since her mid-twenties when she reneged on her plan to become a vet, having been wary of following her folkie parents into a life on the margins. Born and raised in Lyttleton, New Zealand, she first appeared on record as a teenager, guesting on her mother Lorina’s 2004 album, Clean Break, but struck out on her own musically with her self-titled 2014 album, choosing Aldous Harding as a singing pseudonym, apparently because “Aldous” sounded like “a manly Alice”.
The through-the-looking-glass quality of those early songs won acclaim from pixie folk extremists, with 4AD picking her up for 2017’s Party. Her woman-possessed live performances and pleasingly strange videos have helped to bring Harding a considerable audience since, despite her unwillingness to explain exactly what she is singing about. True to form, Warm Chris comes with no relatable back story, while her Q&A session with Uncut boils down to a good-natured but resolute “go away”. Venture into her total immersion world and one must accept that there is no map.
For all that, some of the topographical details of Warm Chris are familiar, but while it was recorded at the same studio as Designer (Rockfield), with Harding’s regular producer John Parish and a similar ensemble of players, it delights in subtle deviation from an already Samuel Beckett-worthy script. If its predecessors had a stylish monochrome palette, Warm Chris has unexpected flashes of ’70s living room colour; the porcelain shirehorse rhythms of opener “Ennui”, the bolts of garish electric guitar that explode into the Bambi-legged title track, the ITV sitcom melodies of “Tick Tock”.
Harding, meanwhile, takes her voice to even more unusual places; a wobbly high-pitched whine on “Warm Chris”, a Southern belle drawl on “She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain”, a German hausfrau bark on “Passion Babe”, and what seems like a Stars In Their Eyes Patti Smith on her glowering closer “Leathery Whip”. It is an expression, perhaps, of a reluctance to settle in one position – perhaps significantly, she has returned to New Zealand in recent months following a spell living in Cardiff. As she sings on her Syd Barrett samba, “Staring At The Henry Moore”: “I need the liberty”.
However, Warm Chris sparkles thanks to her willingness to make seemingly wilful decisions. “If you’re not for me, guess I am not for you”, she sings on “Lawn”, bridling – not for the first time – against the burden of other people’s expectations. With upright piano and horn parts straight off an early-1970s Kevin Ayers record, opener “Ennui” feels like a rolly-eyed look at the clichés of artistic angst, with a sharp-elbowed dig at Instagram conformity (“No ‘one look’ and a canny fucking fill, don’t lie to me”), while the clip-clop paced “Tick Tock” is a more determined stretch for breathing space. Possessed of a very Welsh kind of saudade, Harding yearns to put several miles between herself and the outside world. “Party people they all want to start at 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 kind of burned-out fast-setter on dessicated Shangri-Las shuffle “Fever”, as she watches the inferno of an affair cooling down to an ember. “I still stare at you in the dark/Looking for that thrill in the nothing”, she sings between some wake-up horn blasts. “You know my favourite place is the start”.
That desire to press the eject or rewind buttons is similarly strong on situation comedy “Passion Babe”, Harding’s stentorian narrator prefacing her curious tilt for sensual freedom with the words: “Well you know I’m married/And I was bored out of my mind”. There’s a marriage in cinematic lament “She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain” too, Harding’s crestfallen Blanche Dubois finding herself short-changed at the altar as she laments: “When I started out I had much more than I have now”. However, if familiarity tends to breed contempt in the world of Warm Chris, solitude comes with its own issues, Harding’s broken Broadway lament “Bubbles” striving to put a brave face on the quiet indignity of loneliness (“I’ll be fine, I’m a winner”).
Warm Chris is a record that searches for exits and plots escape routes, but malevolent kiss-off “Leathery Whip” is a dread acknowledgement familiar to the newly 30 that contact with the filthy world of death and taxes may not be avoidable. Cowering under an elemental organ, it comes on like a statement of independence, a rejection of conventional goals. “I’m a little bit older but I remain unchanged”, Harding repeats. “And the folks who want me don’t have the things I’m chasing”. Sleaford Mods barker Jason Williamson then joins in on backing vocals as Harding’s memento mori mantra kicks in: “Here comes life with his leathery whip/Here comes life with his leathery whip”.
Gravity gets us all in the end, then, but Warm Chris is a testament to messy, creative life, close-miking and cinema-vérité production showcasing all of the deliberate wobbly edges in Harding’s songs. As with the PJ Harvey of White Chalk, Harding goes wherever her voice takes her, and like fellow apostate traditionalist Richard Dawson, she is comfortable picking for shiny scraps of melody on the hard shoulder. As a consequence, these songs command close attention but – like the messy universe around them – do not necessarily beg to be decoded.
“I wanna play with something that wants to play back,” Harding told The Irish Times in 2019, doing her best to explain her relationship with her work. “I don’t wanna play with something that’s dead.” Slippery and engaging, sure-footed in its ungainliness, Warm Chris meets that challenge. There’s no redemptive story arc, no hard-earned wisdom, just the sense of artist as escapologist, Harding wriggling to get out of whatever bag she finds herself in. Difficult fun is hard to come by, as The Slits sang way back when, but Harding has so much of it. Given her evolution from record to record, she may not be lingering in this spot for long. Where “out and free” will take her next is a tantalising question. The half-woman, half-lizard of the “Lawn” video is just another skin to be sloughed off. The doors swing off their hinges and through she goes.