Review: Grimes Preaches Wonderful and Horrifying Hyperspace Gospel on ‘Art Angels’
Release Date: November 6, 2015
Four records into Claire Boucher’s career as Grimes, she decided it was time for a posse record. Facetiously explaining Art Angels to The Fader, she called it an album made by a “girl group” whose members are all versions of Grimes. But absurdist riffing though it may be, that sort of fractured rhetoric has been present in all of the (many) conversations and convolutions she’s undertaken since the release of her breakthrough collection of Ghost Adventures electro-pop, Visions, back in 2012. She wrote songs for Rihanna, found herself inspired by “bro-art,” invented new metal-leaning alter egos, compared herself to Trent Reznor, and at one point scrapped all of her work for a follow-up album.
What she seems to mean with all of her waffling is that making this record was reflective of the conflicted process of multiple perspectives at work within one brain — the downside of the informational overload and musical omnivorousness that led her to (in)famously describe her diverse pre-Visions music as “post-Internet.” For those hoping for a unified statement from Boucher upon her return, every successive thing she said about the record was a new, potentially worrisome harbinger. Because you can’t be everything to everyone, all at once. Except on Art Angels, the Canadian-born producer proved that she can.
Even just within the record’s first track, the mostly instrumental “laughing and not being normal,” there’s a stylistic breadth and dynamism far beyond anything that Visions suggested. For all of that record’s pop triumphs (surely “Genesis” and “Oblivion” will be remembered among the Bandcamp and G Pen Generation’s best DIY efforts), it was a decidedly streamlined version of the genre-hopping she’d done on her two 2010 releases, Geidi Primes and Halfaxa. Art Angels picks up the ambitiously psychedelic, sci-fi retro-futurism (think Alejandro Jodorowsky directing Battlestar Galactica), condensing it to form a black hole for all of Grimes’ disparate impulses, sucking in chattering vocals that feel like K-Pop’s take on gospel, codeine-thick strings that could be pulled either from modern classical compositions or K-Ci and JoJo’s white-gloved R&B exercises, and bombed-out ambient drones. And that’s just in the record’s first minute and a half.
The neutron-star density doesn’t really stop there. She sublimates mid-aughts Sheryl Crow and sped-up Eagles tapes into the fame-anxious “California” (sample downer lyric: “California / I didn’t think you’d end up treating me so bad”) and enlists the Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes for “SCREAM” — which is sort of the candy Korn take on “I Am a God” — over the next couple of tracks. If it sounds like a lot to stomach, well yeah, Art Angels does careen sorta like a tilt-a-whirl. Elsewhere, she adopts ’90s Eurodance synth work (on “RealiTi,” reworked from a demo on the album she canned, as well as on the Cocteaus-go-to-the-club exercise “Flesh Without Blood,” the neon vomit of “Kill V. Maim,” and the Janelle Monáe-abetted “Venus Fly”). It’s as if she’s writing songs from an alternate timeline where “Better Off Alone” was the most influential pop song ever; if, instead of the Strokes heralding an alt-rock revival the following year, Alice DeeJay’s 2000 album title became the radio’s rule: Who Needs Guitars Anyway.
That’s not to say that there aren’t guitars on Art Angels. As much as this is obviously Grimes’ most purely pop expression, it’s more subtly her rock record too, filling the margins of tracks like “SCREAM” and “Flesh Without Blood” with distorted single-string guitar thrums that wouldn’t sound out of place on either a Paramore or New Order record.
It can get exhausting to attempt to pinpoint all of the worlds she’s pulling from, especially as she offers alternate-reality cheerleader chants (“B-E-H-A-V-E Aggressive!” on “Kill V. Maim”) before launching into techno-feminist slogans and new age-y optimist mantras (“There’s harmony in everything” on “Butterfly”). But that seems to be some of the point of Art Angels’ general practice — it’s evocative of the informational burnout you can feel from even an afternoon on the shoulder of the Information Superhighway. Even if, say, a chord progression that feels like “Since U Been Gone” might prickle you a little, if you wait just a few seconds another string of asynchronous harmonies or chilly synth lines will come along to mutate it into something as otherworldly as what preceded it. The practice is optimistic in a way, that every sound, whether cool or cast aside, has some beauty in it — even the ugly ones.
Visions’ brittle and bitter pop songs feel comparatively embryonic, the simple forerunners of these confounding efforts. She flicks between influences high and low, twisting the radio frequencies both domestic and extraterrestrial. It’s a realization of the potential of a record collection culled from Buzz Bin and bargain bins and what critic Art Tavana called the “democratic ideals” of home-recording software. It’s a triumph of Grimes as gloriously and unapologetically DIY producer, a pop singer politically and emotionally invested in your knowing that she made this all on her own — as if anything workshopped with a team of songwriters could sound so bracing and unpredictable.
So many great writers have these moments, of ripping the chrysalis and emerging to a world of stunning and overwhelming possibility. Rimbaud had “A Season in Hell,” and its surreal and disturbing existentialism was summarily rejected at its publication, sending its author on a course toward becoming an arms dealer. Sufjan Stevens had The Age of Adz, bizarrely maligned for its outsider-art hubris, forcing him straight back to bare folk songs. But Boucher, in her willingness to tread the line between the crushing flood of data and irrepressible pop hooks has created a record so undeniably of its time and place (that is, cyberspace) that it can’t be easily ignored. “It is perfect,” she sings on “Butterfly,” before delivering Art Angels’ wonderfully multifarious mission statement. “It could be anything.”