The new Grimes release provides challenges and rewards for the keen listener…
The success of her previous album Visions clearly caused something of a dilemma for Claire Boucher (aka Grimes). The album had, in many ways, been a gear change from her earlier work in opening up the often cryptic soundscapes that had been the trademark sound of Grimes previous.
In 2014 a new Grimes song was premiered in the form of ‘Go’ (a collaborative effort with Blood Diamonds) whose clubby beats divided opinion amongst fans. To confuse matters, an entire album’s worth of material that Boucher had recorded was deemed “too depressing” and was summarily shelved.
Prior to this, Boucher had issued a statement in 2013 expressing frustration at the casual sexism that her higher profile had suddenly attracted. This wasn’t simply reserved to online commentary, but extended to her experiences within the professional music industry. “I’m tired of men who aren’t professional or even accomplished musicians continually offering to ‘help me out’ … as if i did this by accident and i’m gonna flounder without them. or as if the fact that I’m a woman makes me incapable of using technology”.
It’s clear that these issues have had a bearing on the direction of her music, something which is evident by the lyrical content of the new album.
As with previous releases, Boucher wrote and produced the entirety of Art Angels. The task wasn’t without its challenges as Boucher had decided to introduce live instrumentation – along with learning whole new production techniques. Apparently being a fan of Taylor Swift, Boucher also used the very same tube condenser mic that Taylor Swift utilised when the pop icon recorded Red.
As with ‘Go’, the new album has divided fans and critics alike. Certainly there’s a move to embrace a much more conventional approach than on previous Grimes releases, although Visions appeared to hit that sweet spot between pop and mystery that served it so well.
The album kicks off with an overture of sorts in the form of ‘laughing and not being normal’, a concise mostly instrumental track whose strings and piano flourishes bring a touch of the classical to the album.
‘California’, with its ukulele rhythms and vocal melodies certainly shows a more direct approach than on earlier releases. It’s an indication of the approach that Boucher has taken with the adoption of more traditional instrumentation and arrangements. ‘SCREAM’ (featuring a star turn by Tawainese rapper Aristophanes) offers up an unsettling soundscape of, unsurprisingly, screams and the rapid-fire delivery of Aristophanes against a regimented percussive beat. It also marks the first track that Boucher has produced where she’s not lead vocalist.
Meanwhile, ‘Flesh without Blood’ offers up bassy rhythms and rolling percussion – a perfect foundation for Boucher’s strong yet airy vocals. Out of all the tracks on the album it perhaps straddles that middle ground between the pop sensibility of Visions and touches of a more conventional, club vibe that are dotted throughout Art Angels.
There’s a more stripped down aesthetic for ‘Belly of the Beat’ with its acoustic guitar melody and scratchy vinyl effects, but there’s an insistent melodic touch to the composition that keeps things interesting. Grimes goes electropop for ‘Kill V. Maim’ with its harsh percussion and insistent bass beat, sounding as if Hooky had dropped by the studio for a session. Again, it’s a fine example of the natural evolution of the Grimes sound. “I’m only a man/do what I can” intones Boucher on one of the more memorable tracks on the album.
It’s also probably worth pointing out at this juncture that Boucher has introduced a whole cast of alter egos for the new album, including Roccoco Basilisk, Kill V. Maim and Skreechy Bat (“who’s the metal one”). Some of these characters can be viewed in the video for ‘Flesh without Blood’ / ‘Life in the Vivid Dream’.
‘Artangels’ switches back to an electropop approach with warm synth rhythms while ‘Easily’ is another minimalist composition with its piano melody intro and pleasant vocals. ‘Pin’, meanwhile, delivers a multipurpose composition which sounds at home as a classic Grimes number as much as it would easily slide into a setlist of your club of choice.
Previously released as a demo version in the earlier part of the year as a standalone track, after some mulling over its inclusion ‘Realiti’ also appears on Art Angels, albeit under a freshly recorded version (Boucher claims the original music files were lost). This version is, not surprisingly, more polished and smoother than in its original incarnation. It’s a warm, immersive track picked out by its insistent synth clarion call.
‘World Princess part II’ would, it appear, be a nod to ‘World ♡ Princess’, which appeared on the 2011 album Halfaxa. Sonically, it’s worlds away from its predecessor’s hypnotic vocal trills and instead offers up more of a harder electronic edge with pointed lyrics about “the things you try to take”.
There’s other occasional nods to the Grimes of old, such as the incoherent vocal embellishments and esoteric electronic effects evident on ‘Life in the Vivid Dream’. ‘Venus Fly’, meanwhile, is one of the gems on Art Angels, a collaboration with US artist Janelle Monáe, the track is a tight slice of percussive pop and clipped vocals that bring to mind elements of K-pop.
As an album, Art Angels has certainly invited debate amongst her fans, some of whom feel that Grimes has wandered too far from the quirk and charm of the soundscapes that inhabited the likes of Halfaxa – not to mention the dark pop of Visions. These arguments are not without merit, although Art Angels offers up rewards for the music enthusiast willing to mine for them.