Album Review – Art Angels / Grimes

Well, it’s here. Grimes’ follow up to her critical and commercial success Visions now has a successor in Art Angels, an album that finally brings Grimes into the pop-sphere with her signature splashes of experimentalism and eccentricity. It hasn’t been a journey without problems – there was the story and backlash about Grimes binning an album (which was assumed that it was to do with her Rihanna-rejected single ‘Go’ and then there was the fury that Grimes was ‘going pop’. Grimes was always pop, she was just a little more left field. Art Angels, however, feels more like a conscious effort to make what Claire Boucher wants, not what the diehard fans want. For the fourteen tracks listed, almost every one is brimming with synth-pop melody and structure where Visions occasionally dipped in and out of formula. Even the more experimental tracks (‘Laughing And Not Being Normal’, ‘Life In The Vivid Dream’) are differently experimental and are in the same league as the poppier songs, not making it sound like a record of two halves. Grimes went for it properly this time; she put all of herself into the record and didn’t leave any pieces of the old her in the package. Oh no, an artist has evolved.

The thing that might shock a fan the most is the contribution that more traditional instrumentation plays in the album. A guitar is apparent in most songs, from an acoustic on ‘Belly of the Beat’ to pop-punky distortion on ‘Kill V. Maim’, which is one of the biggest bangers on the album because it has the potent combination of new Grimes (guitar, traditional singing) with old Grimes (high-pitched vocals, electronic flourishes). It feels like the only song that’s particularly aggressive in its pounding instrumentation, but as for the lyrics, it matches up with the rest of the album, which resembles a giant middle finger to labels, the music press, fans who don’t want her to change and indie music in general. On ‘California’, she juxtaposes ‘The things they see in me, I cannot see in myself’ with ‘when you get bored of me, you’ll put me back on the shelf’. Some of the lyrics that Grimes sings are pretty scathing, but a lot of the time it’s layered in peppy synth-pop, which seems weird and contradicting, but then again it’s like a fist-pumping triumph against anything that was expected of Boucher.

‘REALiTi’ makes a welcome return in the tracklisting, although this time it’s ‘finished’. Personally, it doesn’t sound as good the demo that Boucher released earlier this year. Through ironing out the creases, the bite and brittleness (proper journalist description words) of the demo’s instrumentals have been squashed flat into a more dream-poppy sound which makes sense as the demo stands out against the rest of the album, but one of the better singles of the year has been slightly disappointed by its shinier sister. The shift of production style is very apparent. This time around, Grimes’ vocals are no longer hidden by her instrumentals, and those instrumentals are more pronounced. In short – it’s much easier to pick out the different methods Grimes uses and shows that she’s really come on as a producer in the last few years. Speaking of producing, the guest vocalist choice is excellent and exactly what the album needs. Aristophanes makes a major debut on ‘SCREAM’, which was released as the second single, and Janelle Monáe, who exists in the same future-pop sphere as Grimes, adds a certain swagger to ‘Venus Fly’. For a voice as powerful as Monáe’s, she trades verses with Grimes easily. It’s one of the tracks that feels more experimental with its extended chorus and distorted vocals as well as some more abrasive instrumentation than the sugar/horror-pop combination that’s sprinkled across Art Angels. 

Remember ‘World Princess’ from Halfaxa and ‘Saturn Princess’, an unreleased song? Well, Grimes brings it back to Earth for ‘World Princess Part II’. It’s not exactly a continuation as the original was pure experimental psych-electronic. Now, it’s been traded up for a track which is accessible yet more traditional. The drums have that ‘REALiTi’-demo brittleness and Boucher’s vocals are notched somewhere between her newfound vocals and the high-pitched one. It’s a likeable track because it’s so easy to listen to and it’s less direct in its lyrics. It can be interpreted in a number of ways, unlike a lot of the tracks on Art Angels. For all of Grimes explanations that many of the songs on the album were from the perspective of angels crying pollution and a transgender vampire Al Pacino, it doesn’t take much imagination to see that those perspectives are just as easily hers.

It’s a crying shame that ‘Life In The Vivid Dream’ wasn’t more. That’s the biggest disappointment of the album – that the song feels like it has so much more to give. From the acoustic guitar to the muffled drums and Boucher’s most emotive singing yet, it ends way too soon after only 1:30 and enters into ‘Butterfly’, which is a perfectly reasonable song, but it would have been an interesting direction to see ‘Life In The Vivid Dream’ end the album on a somewhat soft note (a bit like the beautiful ‘Know The Way’). However, ‘Butterfly’ is one of the better pop songs on Art Angels, especially on the chorus when the instrumentation explodes into life. It’s as radio-ready as anything else on Art Angels and that’s something to talk about. Almost every track is strong enough for the radio, every song is equally prepped to be Grimes big shot at the charts. There isn’t a weak track – there’s just experimental bits tacked on the side as a balancer. ‘REALiTi’, ‘Kill V. Maim’, ‘World Princess Part II’, ‘Venus Fly’, ‘Butterfly’. They’re all perfect shots of eccentric, fidgety pop for the internet generation.

Grimes is the perfect case of the toxic atmosphere of independent music and she bites back on Art Angels. She’s making the music she wants to make, not what the press or diehard fans want. If she loses fans in the process, well, that’s just what’s going to happen. She hasn’t been forced into making this kind of music; Boucher is just doing it because it’s the natural evolution of Grimes. She recently said in an interview (the Guardian, 31/10/15)  ‘The purpose of Grimes is that it’s genreless. Putting a label on it makes no sense’. The globalised nature of the internet means nobody says ‘I’m a mod’ or ‘I’m a punk’ anymore, they just say ‘I listen to all kinds of music’ and Grimes is the personification of that mentality. It’s not an overstatement to say that Grimes is the most important thing to happen to music in a long time because she’s finally the personality that can define what music in the 21st century is about. It’s not about labels and genres and audiences, it’s about kids creating whatever the hell they like on the money they can afford. Simply the existence of Grimes is what should be pushing other artists to rethink what they are making to beyond the boundaries of expectation. Art Angels is the sound of an artist exploring new territories, feeling out the barriers and breaking through them. It doesn’t matter whether you like it or not – it’s an iconic document of music.

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Funnel Recommends: Flesh Without Blood / Kill V. Maim / World Princess Part II / Venus Fly

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