Aldous Harding by Emma Wallbanks via 4AD
Photo: Emma Wallbanks / Courtesy of 4AD

Aldous Harding Tries to Navigate a Troublesome Limbo on ‘Warm Chris’

Despite some successes, including song-of-the-year contender “Leathery Whip”, Warm Chris mostly shows the gifted Aldous Harding trying to navigate a troublesome limbo.

Warm Chris
Aldous Harding
25 March 2022

With her latest album, Warm Chris, Aldous Harding occasionally strikes gold but more often falls short of the rich textures and melodic immediacies of previous work. The result is a project that insufficiently highlights Harding’s knack for crafting sensual tunes and subtly danceable rhythms. Additionally, her vocal experimentations, while intriguing, tend to obscure her naturally compelling timbre, yielding performances that frequently occur as more derivative than adventurous.

Harding’s lyrics on “Tick Tock”, as with earlier songs, are imagistically and declaratively oblique, congruent with the Burroughs-Gysin cut-up method. This surreal signature has, in the past, been complemented by hyper-accessible melodies and sumptuous textures. Here, however, the drier and more minimal instrumentation, as well as a faltering melody, fail to counterbalance or vivify the abstract verbiage. Harding’s vocal, conjuring a cross between Lou Reed and PJ Harvey, is perhaps notable, yet it’s perplexing why a singer as talented as Harding would feel the need to be imitative.

With “Fever”, Harding’s vocal hints at Chrissie Hynde and Nico circa her solo debut, Chelsea Girl. Familiar images and tangible references (“We met at a hotel reception”, “Eleven days in the heat of the city”, “All my favorite places are bars”) give the piece a raconteurial and psychedelically gritty feel. Harding offers a manifesto about a short-lived yet dramatic romance and how emotional lows inevitably follow highs. Garagey percussion, horns, and synths add to the song’s casual yet sublime gestalt.

The line “I love watching paper planes burn out there” adds concreteness to the avant-folk title song, as does a staccato guitar riff separating choruses and verses. There’s something oddly half-baked, on the other hand, about the folk-rock “Lawn”. Harding’s melody is straightforward yet not exactly hooky, her instrumentation buoyant yet not exactly supportive. In addition, her voice doesn’t achieve the emotional transparency for which she is presumably striving. It’s as if Harding aspires to a simply rendered Americana a la, say, Waxahatchee‘s Saint Cloud, though the endeavor never quite gains traction.

“Passion Babe” encounters similar issues, sounding like a response to early Courtney Barnett. The piano-accompanied “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain” (no, not that song) occurs as a cross between Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” and Tapestry-era Carole King. The banjo part adds a fresh sonic dimension to the track (and album as a whole) but isn’t sufficiently integrated to radicalize the piece. Of the ten takes on Warm Chris, “Staring at the Henry Moore” is perhaps most aligned with the alluring sound and stylistics of 2019’s Designer, a spacey, gossamer, and delicately melodic entry that also spotlights Harding’s unaffected cadence.

The project auspiciously closes with one of the more exceptional tracks in Harding’s oeuvre, “Leathery Whip”. A sustained synth part accompanies her deadpan delivery, part alt-folk, part intellectual punk. The chorus – “Here comes life with his leathery whip” – is a seductive and thrillingly delivered metaphor. The song shows Harding intentionally exiting her comfort zones, as she attempts to do throughout the album, yet accomplishing, with this track, a seminal reinvention.

Perhaps Warm Chris functions as Harding’s dialog with sources that she considers inspiring. However, if that’s the case, these sources seem inadequately absorbed or reconfigured. Perhaps the set is a “bridge project”, a sequence that will help Harding process various creative options and ultimately transition from one style to another. In any case, despite some successes, including song-of-the-year contender “Leathery Whip”, the album mostly shows the gifted Harding trying to navigate a troublesome limbo.

RATING 6 / 10