If you’re unfamiliar with the extraordinary world of the New Zealand people musician Aldous Harding, the mesmerizing music video for her 2019 single “The Barrel” might be the place to begin.
The track is breezy and lightweight — gently strummed acoustic guitar chords, a buoyant piano riff — however because the video proceeds, a disarming sense of the uncanny creeps in. One thing is ever so barely off. Harding wears a billowing shirt with a pilgrim collar and a stovepipe-shaped straw hat, stiffly shimmying her shoulders and making a sequence of awkwardly expressive faces. It’s not fairly apparent at first, however you can swear that with every lower her hat appears to be getting … taller? Then it’s positively taller, comically so — however proper when it turns into weird sufficient to giggle out loud, there’s a sudden lower to Harding carrying a spooky demon masks that takes your breath away. At any level, you is likely to be tempted to ask, why? However that may be the fallacious query. In Aldous Harding’s droll, dreamlike work, there’s not quite a lot of as a result of, simply quite a lot of wonderful, deadpan is.
Harding is usually reluctant to elucidate what her songs are “about” and gravitates towards prismatic and evocative lyrics that welcome a number of interpretations. Nonetheless, in the midst of her enchanting fourth album, “Heat Chris,” out Friday, she stumbles upon a chorus that sounds, in some sense, like a mantra for her complete joyfully immersive oeuvre: “Ardour should play, or ardour received’t keep,” she sings on the jaunty, piano-driven “Ardour Babe,” in a excessive, staccato voice that makes her sound like a smart youngster.
Even Harding’s extra gloomy-sounding early information, just like the sparse and gothic “Occasion” from 2017, have been enlivened by moments of absurdist humor, like incongruous backing vocals that emerged out of nowhere on track titles like “What If Birds Aren’t Singing They’re Screaming.” Since her breakout 2019 album “Designer,” although, Harding’s music has been drifting ever nearer to weightlessness. “Heat Chris,” a group of fractured, ethereal pop songs and her third album produced by the PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish, continues this development. It’s her nimblest album but, although it has not sacrificed her signature, surrealist undertow.
Harding’s voice is chameleonic, and the best way it adjustments in tone and timbre from track to track is considered one of her music’s disorienting pleasures. “Individuals say to me, ‘Why don’t you employ your actual voice?’” she stated in a current Pitchfork interview. “However what folks don’t perceive is that I don’t know what my regular voice is anymore.” On paper, Harding may very well be labeled as simply one other “feminine people singer/songwriter,” however her music and movies have a spaciousness that makes that descriptor appear unbearably limiting. In her writing course of, which she has described as a form of channeling of varied characters’ monologues, she added, “taking id too significantly is admittedly detrimental to my music.”
And so her vocal supply all through “Heat Chris” is something however predictable: On one track, the plangent, plinking “She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain,” Harding sings with the reedy eager of “After the Gold Rush” period Neil Younger, whereas on the very subsequent, “Staring on the Henry Moore,” she’s a lilting chanteuse within the fashion of Vashti Bunyan. The standard Harding track is just not a legible narrative a lot as a tableau vivant, with unusual, unknowable characters posed in the midst of a scene that’s totally realized if by no means solely defined.
A lot of this impact comes from Harding’s lyrics, that are succinct, enigmatic and potent. That wasn’t at all times the case: On her 2014 self-titled debut album, she used typically archaic phrases and knotty diction, as if she have been straining to sound severe and poetic. However her writing has significantly improved as she’s come to know the ability of easy, trendy phrases organized in sudden methods. “Oh, the soiled of it,” she intones in a gruff voice at the start of the “Heat Chris” spotlight “Tick Tock” — a line that’s by some means each inscrutable and exactly vivid.
The wonderful single “Fever,” a spiky, stutter-stepping mid-tempo quantity, incorporates a few of her most stirring lyricism but. Although too imprecise and imagistic to be lowered to a linear narrative, the track nonetheless loosely, and poignantly, suggests how troublesome it may be to make a long-term partnership work: “I nonetheless stare at you at nighttime,” Harding sings in a low croon, “in search of that thrill within the nothing.”
It’s fairly a tightrope act to make music this legitimately odd with out falling into extreme whimsy, and, now and again, Harding’s legs wobble. (“Of all of the methods to eat a cake,” she sings on “Ardour Babe,” “this one absolutely takes the knife.”) However at its core, like David Byrne in his huge swimsuit or David Bowie taking part in harlequin, Harding’s is a grounded eccentricity, rooted within the traditions of avant-garde theater and people music whereas nonetheless retaining a welcoming sense of play. As with all of Harding’s finest work, “Heat Chris” is an offbeat, infectious and finally liberating invitation to cease making sense.