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Aldous Harding’s Gloriously Peculiar World of Songs

If you are unfamiliar with the weird and wonderful world of the New Zealand folk musician Aldous Harding, the mesmerizing music video for her 2019 single “The Barrel” is probably the place to start.

The song is breezy and light — gently strummed acoustic guitar chords, a buoyant piano riff — but as the video proceeds, a disarming sense of the uncanny creeps in. Something is ever so slightly off. Harding wears a billowing blouse with a pilgrim collar and a stovepipe-shaped straw hat, stiffly shimmying her shoulders and making a series of awkwardly expressive faces. It’s not quite obvious at first, but you could swear that with each cut her hat seems to be getting … taller? Then it’s definitely taller, comically so — but right when it becomes bizarre enough to laugh out loud, there’s a sudden cut to Harding wearing a spooky demon mask that takes your breath away. At any point, you might be tempted to ask, why? But that would be the wrong question. In Aldous Harding’s droll, dreamlike work, there’s not a lot of because, just a lot of glorious, deadpan is.

Harding is generally reluctant to explain what her songs are “about” and gravitates toward prismatic and evocative lyrics that welcome multiple interpretations. Still, in the middle of her enchanting fourth album, “Warm Chris,” out Friday, she stumbles upon a refrain that sounds, in some sense, like a mantra for her whole joyfully immersive oeuvre: “Passion must play, or passion won’t stay,” she sings on the jaunty, piano-driven “Passion Babe,” in a high, staccato voice that makes her sound like a wise child.

Even Harding’s more gloomy-sounding early records, like the sparse and gothic “Party” from 2017, were enlivened by moments of absurdist humor, like incongruous backing vocals that emerged out of nowhere on song titles like “What If Birds Aren’t Singing They’re Screaming.” Since her breakout 2019 album “Designer,” though, Harding’s music has been drifting ever closer to weightlessness. “Warm Chris,” a collection of fractured, airy pop songs and her third album produced by the PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish, continues this progression. It is her nimblest album yet, though it has not sacrificed her signature, surrealist undertow.

Harding’s voice is chameleonic, and the way it changes in tone and timbre from song to song is one of her music’s disorienting pleasures. “People say to me, ‘Why don’t you use your real voice?’” she said in a recent Pitchfork interview. “But what people don’t understand is that I don’t know what my normal voice is anymore.” On paper, Harding could be classified as just another “female folk singer/songwriter,” but her music and videos have a spaciousness that makes that descriptor seem unbearably limiting. In her writing process, which she has described as a kind of channeling of various characters’ monologues, she added, “taking identity too seriously is really detrimental to my music.”

And so her vocal delivery throughout “Warm Chris” is anything but predictable: On one song, the plangent, plinking “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain,” Harding sings with the reedy keen of “After the Gold Rush” era Neil Young, while on the very next, “Staring at the Henry Moore,” she’s a lilting chanteuse in the style of Vashti Bunyan. The typical Harding song is not a legible narrative so much as a tableau vivant, with strange, unknowable characters posed in the middle of a scene that is fully realized if never entirely explained.

Much of this effect comes from Harding’s lyrics, which are succinct, enigmatic and potent. That wasn’t always the case: On her 2014 self-titled debut album, she used often archaic words and knotty diction, as if she were straining to sound serious and poetic. But her writing has greatly improved as she’s come to understand the power of simple, modern words arranged in unexpected ways. “Oh, the dirty of it,” she intones in a gruff voice at the beginning of the “Warm Chris” highlight “Tick Tock” — a line that is somehow both inscrutable and precisely vivid.

The excellent single “Fever,” a spiky, stutter-stepping mid-tempo number, contains some of her most stirring lyricism yet. Though too vague and imagistic to be reduced to a linear narrative, the song still loosely, and poignantly, suggests how difficult it can be to make a long-term partnership work: “I still stare at you in the dark,” Harding sings in a low croon, “looking for that thrill in the nothing.”

It’s quite a tightrope act to make music this legitimately odd without falling into excessive whimsy, and, every so often, Harding’s legs wobble. (“Of all the ways to eat a cake,” she sings on “Passion Babe,” “this one surely takes the knife.”) But at its core, like David Byrne in his big suit or David Bowie playing harlequin, Harding’s is a grounded eccentricity, rooted in the traditions of avant-garde theater and folk music while still retaining a welcoming sense of play. As with all of Harding’s best work, “Warm Chris” is an offbeat, infectious and ultimately liberating invitation to stop making sense.

Aldous Harding
“Warm Chris”
(4AD)

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