Around the time of the release of her broody pop breakthrough Visions, Grimes appeared in a YouTube video set up by Amoeba Music stores in which she goes through her intended purchases after a quick rifling session. Being the esoteric indie darling she is, some of her prospective buys are to be expected (niche “out there” ambient music and some very alternative hip-hop) but others might come off as bit of a shock to those who like to perpetuate the off-centre, manic pixie dream girl Grimes narrative (DVDs of that Justin Bieber movie and Madonna music videos). It’s only with the release of the sugary, saccharine yet schizophrenic Art Angels does it all start to make sense.
It’s a little funny that that so many of her fans claimed with such over the top vitriol that Claire Boucher was making sell-out “trash pop” following the release of the controversial ‘Flesh Without Blood’ as it’s clear she’s always had a soft spot for mainstream kitsch. In truth, this is what has made the evolution of the Grimes project such a fascinating one. The tension in her music between Top 40 sensibilities and the more experimental side of popular music has been there since 2010 debut Geidi Primes, but on Art Angels that uneasy marriage is put under a microscope and magnified for all to see. To say that those who’ve had this album’s more gloomily lit predecessor left on repeat since 2012 are going feel alienated by what’s on display here is underselling it just a tad. Granted, you could imagine half of these songs appearing over the end credits of some anime that sexually exploits pre-teen schoolgirls but these tracks still showcase that unique quality that makes Grimes, well…Grimes.
Take the batshit but brilliant ‘Kill V. Maim’, for instance; a truly weird K-pop inspired fusion that even features that auto tuned chipmunk voice that we all loved so much about 10 years ago. The song still very much has the mark of its maker on it and it’s her off-kilter delivery in which we find it. On the chorus Grimes is disarmingly, deceptively cute but in the verses she contorts her voice into a threatening bark. ‘Kill V. Maim’ is apparently a retelling of The Godfather Part II, except with vampires and werewolves, but knowing that doesn’t mean you can any more sense out of the lunatic lyrics. Not that any of that matters anyway.
It’s second track ‘California’ that feels most like a deliberate provocation aimed at those who will no doubt long for those halcyon days of Visions. Boucher’s voice soars on the titular chorus and stretches the name of the golden state so long that the whole thing briefly veers into wistful, pop country territory. “You only like me when you think I’m looking sad”, she sneers and the line rings out like a direct message to those who only want Boucher to remain in more sinister soundscapes or even like the false idea that it was an amphetamine binge that inspired that music. Elsewhere, the Vancouver native still seems eager to deconstruct the unrealistic myth surrounding the Grimes character that has been distorted by the media and others: “If you’re looking for a dream girl / I’ll never be your dream girl”, she laments on the sickly sweet standout ‘Butterfly’.
Boucher has said she was “curious about music in the year 1100” and about “combining that with electronic stuff”. It is the kind of non-description she would offer, but there is a sort of retro- futuristic vibe to Art Angels. Grimes appears to be influenced not by what’s in the charts where she lives today but rather what made up the lists of the past and the more far flung regions of the world. The exquisitely ethereal title track opens with a riff that’s eerily reminiscent of the one that pervades Michael Jackson’s idealistic ear worm ‘Black or White’ while other tracks sport a distinct 90s Eurodance feel (‘Word Princess Part II’) or take their cues from the saturated sound of cutesy Asian pop. This messy mishmash can result in some curious misfires (‘Scream’) but Grimes is able to curate her own distinct sound that exists almost outside of genre and refuses to be easily contextualised in any time with a hook-heavy lucid dream of an album that works a lot better than it has any right too.
Art Angels is like flicking through an infinite amount of music channels on the tail end of an acid trip. Chances are, you’ll eventually find something you’ll like but you’re not exactly sure why you’ll like it. It’s also the only the prominent release of 2015 that was written, performed, engineered and produced by one woman. This may mean Grimes can have the fun and control she’s craved for years but it also means an added tinge of expectation and responsibility where the work is concerned. We’re all very lucky then, that she gave us such a colourful, kaleidoscopic clusterfuck of a record.