For an artist as idiosyncratic as Aldous Harding, it seems like a miracle that 2019’s Designer presented her sound as well as it did. A record like that can find the perfect balance between approachable and eccentric, and for many serves as a perfect entry point. Following it would be difficult, a complete rehash would feel stilted, while returning to the darker and stripped-back sound of Party would alienate new fans. For Warm Chris, Harding has maintained the personality and joviality of her lyrics and musicianship while simultaneously pushing her voice and herself by proxy as far as it’s been pushed before.
On her previous albums, Harding used her voice to portray a character at once spritely and gothic, a necessary vessel to portray each track’s strangeness. She’s still here, but Harding’s vocals now twist and turn their way throughout the record, evoking any timbre necessary to lift her words, even when it no longer sounds like her voice. “Fever” sounds like Lana Del Rey, “Passion Babe” has a bit of Nico and a bit of Nena in it, “She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain”, darts between Joanna Newsom and Karen Dalton, and “Leathery Whip” sounds like no one, not even Harding.
All of these tracks work in tandem together, partly because of John Parish’s stellar production, something that keeps the entire album aligned to its predecessors, and partly because even when Harding is bordering on straight impersonation, she always holds on to something that can tie the performance back to herself. Even on “Staring at the Henry Moore”, a song that embodies the whispered levity of Vashti Bunyan, Harding waits until the chorus before providing a delivery that’s hurried, breezy, and unmistakably her own – before bringing back her Karen Dalton honk. Warm Chris avoids nearly every pitfall that an album like this would encounter. It makes Harding sound more alien than she already does, but only on the tracks that deserve it; it’s slightly less immediate than Designer, but more diverse; and it never once feels derivative of any other artist or Harding herself. Even if taken strictly as a vocal exercise, Warm Chris is a triumph, and another key to unraveling her enigma.