When you spend your career as an artist creating wholly unique pieces of expression, then to have a music critic provide a single word definition for the recent iteration must feel entirely depressing. Well, for that notion of sadness spreading across the face of New Zealand’s folk-psyche hero, Aldous Harding, I am sincerely sorry. As, for the most part, her latest album Warm Chris can be summed up in one word: charming.
Before we go any further, it’s worth defining exactly what charming means in this instance. This is not a reference to some smarmy faced indie-pop or a crooner with a shit-eating smile and too much pomade in his hair, nor even the kind of “charming” a British aristocrat could drop like an atomic bomb of appalling insult. No, Warm Chris is the kind of vibrating warmth and confounding comfort that makes good novels great and leaves one with a sense of enrichment for having caught the end of a sunset. That may sound like a grandiose statement, but with Harding’s latest effort arriving when Britain has been bathed in the glorious spring sunshine, it’s hard not to be wistful.
‘Ennui’ starts off the record with the green shoots of discovery. Floating between pop ditty and experimental flexing, the song is bountiful in hopeful bounce, yet still flecked with Harding’s undoubted artistry. That’s not to say the opener is a perfect welcome drink for a hardy soul, quite the opposite. The song is comparatively dense in structure to some of the work on Harding’s 2019 LP Designer, requiring the audience to peel back layer upon layer of nuance to finally find the nugget of enlightenment. The rest of the tracks on the record only unfurl further majesty from this point.
In truth, the songs don’t do much of the work for you. Harding is one of the better songwriters out there in capturing intense emotion, but she is one of the best at providing a fulfilling puzzle of how to reach that emotion. It means some of her songs, which may have previously been aligned with a kind of gentle folk-pop, are now heavier than ever in tone.
On ‘She’ll Be Coming Round the mountain’ for instance, Harding turns the notion of the song connected with the title into something almost impenetrable, providing accessibility and then denying it at the first turn of the page. ‘Warm Chris’, the title track, is also wrecked with blissful notes on watching paper plans crash and burn — it’s the kind of delicate delivery and cultured craftsmanship that makes Harding such a joy to listen to.
Of course, there are still moments of cleansing pop sunshine within the LP. Tracks like the swirling and surreal ‘Lawn’, a gentle dose of 1960s pop with a piano boogie, and the utterly captivating lead single ‘Fever’ offer a clear perspective for anyone doubting Harding’s talent. Much like when one witnesses the intricate sketchbooks of a modern conceptual artist only to realise that despite painting in obtuse colours, defiant composition and deliberately subversive technique, they are also able to effortlessly draw a near-perfect replica of the Sistine Chapel, Harding can craft a pop song with a shimmy of her 2B.
“I just want everyone to feel like a philosopher. You put on a record, and that record belongs to you,” Harding told Pitchfork in a recent interview. Truthfully, this album delivers this philosophy with aplomb. With every listen to this album, from morning coffee to late-night cigarettes, I have found new meaning, new tone, and a new appreciation for the songs, the record as a whole and Harding’s imperious talent.