Time travel, celestial beings, and sugar pop: The weird, wonderful world of Grimes' 'Art Angels'
When you love an artist, especially one who only recently reached mainstream heights of fame, you feel protective of them: Their previous work, their quirks and eccentricities, the meaning and commiseration that you’ve gleaned and internalized from their work. This is who they ARE, natural courses of behavior and influence like change and evolution be damned. The core of their art cannot and will not be changed by amorphous concepts like “exposure” or “expectations” or “growth.”
So when they publicly take a U-turn in their artistic approach and content, it can feel like a personal attack. Such was the case with the press interview run-up in advance of Grimes’ fourth album Art Angels, in which she promised an album poppier, rockier, and denser in sound, as well as proffered up descriptions like “diss tracks,” “if No Doubt did Studio Ghibli,” “sonically as uncool as I could make it,” “bro-art” and “written from the perspective of Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II. . . except he’s a vampire who can switch gender and travel through space.” Through it all, Grimes has become even more vocal about the effort it takes to create her music, and yes, she is the one creating it — a fact she insisted on underlining to the point where it seemed defensive.
Her fans, myself included, wondered what the hell was going on with the idiosyncratic artist, who’d built her previous work on a foundation of obscurity and obfuscation and was now being all-too-clear about her influences, intent, and guiding ideology. And now, we know what was up, the thing she took her time in crafting: Art Angels is an incredibly direct album, born out of frustration and hate with, largely, anonymous online culture, and turned into both a commentary on and an amazing addition to the pop canon. It is danceable, it is catchy as hell, and it is unmistakably, beautifully, hers.
Canadian weirdo (a term here applied endearingly) Claire Boucher had originally oozed out of the primordial soup of experimental, deeply atmospheric electronica music. When 2012’s Visions hit it big, it was for the things that she’d cultivated for an underground audience and had left percolating outside the glare of of the mainstream music, let alone art and fashion worlds. Her music up until then was filled with space, endless space, embedded into and outside of her sound. “Oblivion” (the song music website Pitchfork named the best song of its decade) has a beat with the verve and unpredictability of skipping rope while addressing assault and fear; “Be A Body” is electric, Grimes’ voice soaring and dipping with thin lines of connection between; “Skin” embodies the static charge between two lovers as they ponder whether they should kiss. But for all the objective weirdness of her earlier music, Boucher herself has always been a capital-p Pop fan. However, her actual entrance into that world wasn’t meant to be hers.
“Go” was written for Rihanna and had a real EDM drop. Later came “Realiti,” a glitchy, panned-sound experiment that was more reminiscent of her earlier music, but with a production quality, vocal clarity, and thought that belied its unfinished state. (A finished form is now a standout track on Art Angels.) Then there were “Take Me Away” and “Entropy,” her collaborations with fun. and Bleachers musician Jack Antonoff. Slowly but surely, Grimes was publicly mucking up conceptions of her as the reclusive, borderline agoraphobic electronic producer/waifish singer. (A misplaced form of idolatry she addressed in this must-read post.)
Her music had been, both by design and by money/time/resource limitations, a certain kind of sparse. Now, to borrow an image from another pop icon, she’s shedding the chrysalis of her former self and emerging, not reborn, but rather reformed. To borrow another wing metaphor, she flew just close enough to the sun to warp herself, but not so much that she didn’t escape the prison of misplaced concern: About the hype cycle, about her production choices, about herself as an artist and visionary within the music world.
Art Angels is the consummation of the diva pop influences she adores (Mariah Carey and Enya, a personal favorite) and her own, self-contained vision of sound. Grimes’ vocals have never been this elastic, tortured, clear, and sublime, whether she’s screaming or crooning, chanting or cooing; her instrumentation has never been this deep, rich, and heavy (even in the sonically lighter tunes), as she essentially plays out her own studio band. It is a lot to take in, but I for one had my mouth open in a suspended laugh-scream of utter listening joy.
There are references to her many influences and interests throughout the lyrics (“Gotta catch ’em all” in “laughing and not being normal,” “Me against the music” in “Venus Fly”), as well as production callbacks to her earlier sounds (the glittering synth lines laced throughout”Pin”). On “World Princess pt II,” a spiritual sequel to second album Halfaxa track “World Princess,” the production sounds almost like video game background music until it tone shifts into something glossier, proving her continued mastery over atmosphere.
Of course, there are things about the album that, by virtue of the fact that we’ve never heard them from her before, stick out like pins in a cushion: Second track “California” is downright twangy, even as Nine Inch Nails-style industrial glitches pepper the background; “Scream,” featuring the Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes, sounds like horror-genre boss battle music, down to the actual screams in the background (a feature used recently by, of all people, The Weeknd); “Artangels” launches into a Europop chorus that borders on ’90s teen group levels of cheesiness; operatic lines and cellos pop up intermittently throughout the album. But the songs are deliberately and expertly crafted experiments, each track existing as a bubble of Grimes’ talent and, yes, growth as both a vocalist and a producer. Her voice, so suited to layering over darkly bubbling beats, gets to shine in the kind of showcase particular to mainstream pop, as on “Easily,” while “Realiti” has its production reinforced and restored. “Kill V. Maim,” the aforementioned Al Pacino time travel track, is giddily bratty in its chorus and deadly serious in its sentiment: “You gave up being good when you declared a state of war.”
The two guest vocalists fit perfectly into this strange amalgam: Aristophanes’ giggles curdle against the twang and drive of the guitar through line, while Janelle Monáe’s android soul fits in perfectly on the confrontational “Venus Fly”; the way her voice fragments starting with the line “Wrap my curls all around the world” is stunning, as are the Dancing Bug-esque drones that give the song a buoyant edge. It is not lost on me that both of Grimes’ collaborators are women of color.
The music video for “Flesh without Blood,” the power-pop lead single of the album, suggested that perhaps all of Grimes’ influences were sneaking up on her: The anime contact lens eyes, the French aristocrat stylization, even the introduction of guitars and drums to her formerly synthscape sound. Would the album, could it, sustain both the ambitions of its maximalist creator and the attention of its easily distracted listening audience? My reaction when the song first dropped was a tentative yes. Now, I am not just drinking the Kool-Aid; I am drowning in it, and happily so.
A mashup couplet, from “California” and “Butterfly” respectively: “You only like me when you think I’m looking sad / If you’re looking for a dream girl, I’ll never be your dream girl.” Grimes gambled with expectations on this album, and she didn’t just beat the house — she burned it down and built her own universe up again from the ashes. Art Angels is bigger and better than what came before, Grimes coaxing her audience out of the darkness and into brilliant, dazzling light.
Listen to Art Angels below: