“Closer to you is not closer to me”, sings Aldous Harding on album title track ‘Warm Chris’, with pinched vocal and, while invisible, her expression also probably contorted into “an impossible face”. It’s true, album number four from Hannah Topp, New Zealand’s most intriguing songwriter, feels even more immediate than the enigma of 2019’s Designer and yet her multiple personalities and voices remain an essential mystery.
In a Pitchfork interview, Topp explored why some people don’t understand why she doesn’t sing in her ‘real’ voice. “I don’t know what my normal voice is anymore”, she said, more comfortable being a kind of ‘song-actor’ rather than labelled a musician. This is evident in her live performances and surreal videos where Aldous Harding acts like a cipher for different muses, channeling their personae through voice, physical movement and facial dramas to add even more nuance to the songs. On Warm Chris, some of these vocalisations resonate with timeless familiarity. We hear whispers of Gold Rush era Neil Young on ‘She’ll Be Comin Round the Mountain’, a fuzzy, post-fix Lou Reed baritone on ‘Tick Tock’ and a Jane Birkiningénue anglaise type on ‘Lawn’. These characterisations are always on point, never jarring or superficial. In fact a dozen or so different characters come and go so fluidly and naturally across the album that you forget that they are one and the same voice. Thus deepens Topp’s charisma and with it our entanglement in the decidedly unravelling/unrevealing world of Aldous Harding.
Information provided about Warm Chris is what you’d expect from an artist who does not enjoy explaining their process or inspiration, but we know that it was recorded with longtime collaborator, production mage John Parish at Rockfield Studios in the Wye Valley. There is a vocal cameo too from Sleaford Mods’ Jason Williamson who does an unexpectedly greasy southern drawl on ‘Leathery Whip’. The diverse talents of H Hawkline, Gavin Fitzjohn and ex-Sons of Kemet drummer Seb Rochford join Parish to provide the right mix of sparseness, warmth and precision to throw you off-guard and exposed to the visceral conundrum of Harding’s poetry. Lines like “A way of life. Philosophy/Lick my instep I miss the funk it leaves on me/ I have the energy” (‘Ennui’) and “I’ll be all day getting the velvet back to you Bambi/Oh you feel the same do you?” (‘Leathery Whip’) bypass our rational defences and go straight for the primitive brain’s deepest cachet of desires and truth. While you’re figuring out what you think and how you feel, you’re carried along by the innocence of a gentle piano, or a buoyant 70s bossa nova, bluegrass banjo and strings, or simply stunning silence.
It’s those qualities that demand close listening, which brings us even closer to Aldous Harding’s voice(s) above all else, owing to the close-mic production. Album highlights emerge over time, with mood and insights (or at most interpretations) unlocked by other songs. Any connecting lines you might draw between tracks can’t really be explained objectively, but that’s more to the point. Topp treats listeners as co-creators. These are our songs too. With perhaps one exception – ‘Fever’ has a more straightforward narrative, about the ache and thrill of early love, meeting someone for the first time and spending time together. “You let me in where a mother’d invested/I still stare at you in the dark/ Looking for that thrill in the nothing”. It feels as close as you will get to Topp’s ‘own voice’, but she’s still playing the puppeteer.
At the other end of the love story there is ‘Passion Babe’, a Berlin burlesque cabaret number that starts with a confessional, “Well you know I’m married/And I was bored out of my mind”, which is echoed in ‘She’ll Be Comin Round the Mountain’ and the lament “Living for the things I love/Killing the ones that love me/Always there’s a marriage/Sad. True/ And they do”. While this may be a literal take on marriage and loss of freedom, there are hints elsewhere too that this extends to both an artist’s relationship with their corporate sponsors, for example on ‘Lawn’ where the character sings sarcastically “Now I’m losing too much/Time flies when you’re writing B Sides” or the sense of external demands closing in on ‘Staring At The Henry Moore’. The inevitability of life’s two certainties, death and taxes, chugs along with an almost ritual chant on closing track ‘Leathery Whip’. As we reconcile getting older with our unfulfilled desires, we also feel the vice slowly tightening.
At the risk of over-analysing and sucking the fun out of this record, we should probably leave it there. Listening to Warm Chris is a genuinely interesting, absorbing and sometimes unsettling experience. It’s another remarkable puzzle piece in Aldous Harding’s career, offered to us without pretense or expectation or fanfare.
God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.
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