Grimes – Art Angels Review
1. laughing and not being normal
3. SCREAM ft. Aristophanes
4. Flesh without Blood
5. Belly of the Beat
6. Kill V. Maim
11. World Princess part II
12. Venus Fly ft. Janelle Monáe
13. Life in the Vivid Dream
15. Realiti (Demo)
What do Grimes and Kanye West have in common? If you said: a shared sense of dread, give yourself a big pat on the back. Both artists long anticipated returns have been blighted by false starts and come shrouded in shadowy whispers suggesting that they’ve “lost it”. Grimes, aka Claire Boucher, seemed genuinely taken aback when her booming EDM influenced comeback single, “Go”, was savaged – not by cruel critics – but by her own fans. How dare she go pop! The track was an abomination in the eyes of the diehards and the Internet wasn’t afraid to let her know about it.
From the outside looking in, the saga that led to the scrapping of an entire album’s worth of material seems farcical. Did those fans who decried “Go” really view Grimes as an avant-garde abstraction? No matter how the deep the denial or how strong the anti-pop prejudice it would take an implausible feat of mental gymnastics to deny the sugary melodies of “Vanessa”, “Oblivion” or “Flesh Without Blood”. Grimes didn’t “sell out”; she’s always been a pop star. She just so happens to be a badass pixie sprite capable of otherworldly artistry as well.
Art Angels, the Canadian’s fourth album, is proudly eccentric and unashamedly addictive. Grimes, like Charli XCX before her, has seen fit to put an array of taut, 90s aping, guitar lines in the foreground (often underwriting them with schizophrenic electronic fireworks), but the biggest evolution is saved for her vocal delivery. The usual obfuscations remain in place (chipmunk highs, spectral Asian coos, wild screams), but rather than sinking into the mix, Claire’s vocal is fired directly at the listener (check out the final mix of “REALiTi” if you’re not convinced). She is no longer dancing behind her keyboard. She is every bit the front woman, talking to her audience as directly as Bono, Chris Martin or Madonna ever did.
There are positives and negatives to this approach. Weak and clunky songwriting jars and thuds against the ear. This new focus on the surface makes Art Angels a more direct and less immersive listen. Rather than softly drifting into realm of subtle sensual delights and cloaked meaning, we are now bopping along in a day glo casino of goading thrills and irresistible impulses. It might sound terrifying, but it magnifies Boucher’s natural charisma. Rather than drifting in the middle distance, not only is she right in your face on “Kill V. Maim”, she’s running turbo charged rings around everything in sight. She’s smiling like Tinie Tempah one second and duking like one of Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP backing dancers the next. Just as you seem to have pinned her down, she shoots into outer space, crashes down to earth crying and bounces back to shriek in your ear. If alien elven cheerleaders ever decide to enslave the earth, I imagine it would sound a little like “Kill V. Maim” (and I for one welcome our alien overlords).
The constant clashing of sounds can be disconcerting. “Artangels” feels like a light speed compression of each and every one of Madonna’s 80s singles (as well the 1998’s Ray Of Light album). The snappy and buoyant lead riff could have driven any number of sugar-smacked one hit wonders in the 1990s, begging the question: what is elevating Grimes’ material above gimmicky agit-pop? Grimes tends to stay clear of traditional hooks or straight forward narratives, so rather than pointing to the crisp clarity of execution, we look to the intoxicating vibrancy and coy flourishes of “Flesh Without Blood” or “REALiTi’s” serene cascading layers (although the finished version is more heavy handed than the demo).
“California”, on the other hand, might just be the most conventional release of Grimes’ career. There’s an open-road expansiveness to the instrumentation as Boucher lets down her guard. Skipping along she details her deepest insecurities with a childish smile on her lips (“The things they see in me, I cannot see myself/When you get bored of me, I’ll be back on the shelf”). It’s surprisingly touching, perhaps an admission of the vulnerability that lies behind her impressionistic sonics and carefree braggadocio. The cutie pie vocal might suggest subversion, but make no mistake; “California” is pure, pristine, pop. “Easily” follows suit, a straight-faced slowee that strangely summons the image of an un-ironic John Grant writing a hit for All Saints.
As Art Angels drifts towards its conclusion Grimes appears dead set on throwing every last idea against the wall in the hope that it sticks. From contemporary K-Pop to old-fashioned European synths, Grimes wants to meld everything together. She wants to be a guitar hero and a schoolgirl superstar. The ambition is endearing and Grimes’ master plan is obvious: never, not even for one second, give any indication that any of this was pre-ordained or organized. Art Angels plays like a pixie dust hallucination. One mad cap idea mutates into the next and, by the time “World Princess, Pt.II” rolls around, the point of origin feels so distant that it’s almost impossible to comprehend that the closing tracks ever shared space with “California” or “Scream”.
“Venus Fly” bangs hard – it also bounces on a space hopper and shoots laser cannons (naturally enough). It’s a credit to Janelle Monae (R&B’s great oddball) that she can ever keep pace with Grimes. Is there actually any documented proof that Claire Boucher can sit still for more than five seconds at a time? She certainly can’t stay in one headspace, because the zips and zaps of “Venus Fly” quite unceremoniously give way to the sumptuous frozen stillness of “Life In The Vivid Dream”. Which, in turn, is sucked into a wormhole and deposited by the ocean spray of “Butterfly’s” intro. Fittingly, the album closer goes some distance to out insane any and all of its counterparts. It lilts, it leans, it soars; “Butterfly” coquettishly leads the listener on a merry dance from tropical islands, through dark steamy nightclubs and out onto the astral plane – a perfectly nonsensical conclusion to an album overflowing with conflicting ideas.
“I’ll never be your dream girl”. Well, Grimes is right there. She never stays in one place long enough to appeal to or appease a single individual. Boucher is a cypher accumulating a ferocious depth of technical knowledge (her production and instrumental dexterity is ungodly) while sliding between planes of existence (let alone scenes and genres). “You could be anything out there” is Claire Boucher’s fundamental article of faith. Art Angels lives up to this fantasy fulfillment promise by being the single most polymorphous pop album ever released. Surprisingly, given Boucher’s freedom of spirit, the album is made human by an undercurrent of artistic insecurity – she is, beneath it all, worried about rejection.
Could it be written off as overly ambitious twaddle: a bulging mess of noise and sound? Certainly. But those who are willing and able to dive headlong down the rabbit hole will be richly rewarded by a pop album like no other. Don’t worry Grimes, we won’t be bored of you anytime soon.