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Review: Grimes, ‘Visions’

performs live on the Main Stage on Day Two during the Reading Festival 2012 at Richfield Avenue on August 25, 2012 in Reading, England.
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: February 21, 2012
Label: 4AD

Claire Boucher has called her music “post-Internet,” but perhaps a more specific view of Visions, her first LP for 4AD, would be “post-Tumblr.” The blogging platform’s brutally simple interface and feed structure urges users to post many more striking images and much less text, while engaging in fewer lengthy conversations and attempting more wordless visual curations. For many, the goal is an unceasing flow of oft-unattributed images, snatches of quoted text, and the occasionally bold bit of design porn. The 23-year-old Boucher loves all of it, telling one interviewer that Tumblr is “people just reveling in all the beauty that the Internet is bringing forth.”

Though her instincts were forged in Montreal’s loft-art scene, it’s clear that Boucher’s brand of literate DIY pop arose in part from an immersion in this sort of endless audio-visual drift. Visions‘ R&B-inflected bedroom dance-pop is collaged from many sources, and the meaning of individual lyrics isn’t as important as their positions within the album’s carefully constructed cosmos. Indeed, Boucher is fond of the idea of expansive space, and her music is cut with the Omni magazine-style, lo-fi retro-futurism often associated with Pitchfork’s recently shuttered “Altered Zones” blog aggregator. On a broader level, with Visions‘ use of non-Western script on the cover, the constant tweaking of Boucher’s vocals, and a song (“Vowels = Space and Time”) intended as a tribute to a Russian Futurist language philosophy, the album is a triumph of form for form’s sake.

Circulating through the fringe-y indie nebulae that gave rise to such micro-genres as witch-house and chillwave the past couple years, Grimes has grown comfortable working out her love for the hip-hop and R&B cross-pollinations of the past couple decades. She credits Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” as a major turning point in her musical maturation, and that’s clear from her voice, which often resembles a YouTube supercut of Mimi’s unearthly melismas. Boucher has a very impressive instrument, yet how she uses it is what makes her different. A one-woman band, she alternates between the breathy coo of a disco diva and the airy gymnastics of her uppermost range, which she then loops and drenches in reverb. Out of this recipe, “Oblivion” and “Be a Body” register as effervescent robot bubblegum, but mid-album track “Eight” is something different. Over a beat that sounds like a crude, repeatedly copied Organized Noize demo, Boucher’s helium coo ascends to the rarefied space of a 2004-era Kanye sample. It’s less than two minutes long, and could go on for six.

Okay, maybe four. The right balance of restraint and release has always been the key to making music like this. It’s best to use embellishments judiciously, and only unleash the whopper after building up to it. Right? Well, for Boucher, a lo-fi version of Mariah’s (and Whitney’s, and Minnie Mouse’s) many descendants, much of the pleasure comes from using the whoppers, as well as the ornamentation, as her foundational elements. Wordless melismas pass for choruses, lyrics blend together as modulating tones, layers of Grimeses dialogue with each other, vocal whoppers punctuate lines in verses.

Yet aside from a few misguided production choices — the Mozart bit on “Night Music” feels a bit like a reblog; more variation in the drum samples and the occasional dry vocal turn would add more color — the muted atmosphere and naïve pop sentiment meld well with Boucher’s vocals. The pervasive sense on Visions is of a young woman carefully pushing out of her own introversion, which makes the moments where she sings from the gut instead of the throat (“Circumambient”), or strives for human-on-human sensuality (“Skin”), all the more thrilling.

Like so many spotlit debuts, Visions displays a young singer developing a relationship with her own voice and the seemingly infinite possibilities for shaping and representing it. The mirror stage for emergent artists who spend a lot of time online and work alone with inexpensive tools often can (and does) lead to merely replicating the surface qualities of the stuff that streams their way. Boucher’s talent lies in the balance of exploiting her gifts and leveraging what’s come before her, but judiciously. Sure, it’s a crowded market right now, but fans aren’t that fickle: Give them enough of a taste and they’ll come back. “Post-Internet” is too easy a classification to make, after all. It’s more interesting to wonder what Visions is “pre-“.