In the swirl of fantastical images surrounding the release of Grimes’s Art Angels, Claire Boucher has been seen with a battle-axe, a sword, a suit of armor, and a mouth dripping with blood. For the album cover, she drew a serpentine self-portrait with three bloody eyes. Whatever the underlying message, the primary implication is clear: Don’t mess with Grimes.
On first listen, there are a few moments on Art Angels when she’s obviously meant to sound as scary as the pictures would suggest. The first is “SCREAM,” which rides a scuzzy, heavy-metal bassline as Aristophanes raps in Mandarin about removing someone’s lifeforce and Grimes does the screaming. The second is when, amid the keyboard chaos of “Kill V. Maim,” Boucher growls theatrically from the point of view of a male vampire. And the third is on “Venus Fly,” a factory-floor spazzout that keeps getting louder as Janelle Monáe barks about disfiguring herself to avoid getting objectified while she dances.
The rest of the album may initially seem far gentler—more sugar rush than blood lust. There are compressed acoustic guitars that remind me of Sheryl Crow or Sixpence None the Richer, dance beats that evoke K-pop in their giddy density, and one Rihanna sample. Grimes’s singing voice is a high wisp that’s been called, to her annoyance, “girly.” But the truth is that there’s aggression even in the album’s prettiest moments. Grimes is taking what a lot of people would consider some of the least dangerous sounds in music and turning them into weapons.
In the time since Grimes’s 2012 album Visions—a clicking, burbling soundscape that happened to contain some of the catchiest tracks of the new millennium—Boucher has gained icon status in the world of alternative music. But in interview after interview, she’s talked more about the negative feedback she’s received. Some of that negativity has been from men who showed discomfort with the fact that she writes and produces all of her music, and some of it has been from indie fans who sneered at Grimes’s love for Mariah Carey, Taylor Swift, and other pop artists. Adding evidence for the theory that opposition breeds great art, Art Angels is made, in part, for these haters. “There’s a lot of diss tracks,” she has said.
First, though, she has to establish that we’re firmly in her world. Art Angels opens with a minute and a half of mischievous violin picking and woodwind curlicues that will transport a lot of listeners to days spent playing The Legend of Zelda or Final Fantasy. The arrangement drops out and Boucher coos in an operatic cadence, culminating in a Pokemon reference: “I try to catch ‘em all.”
Next comes “California,” a sunny but bizarre pastiche with that ’90s pop guitar strumming, some sudden new-jack-swing drum slams, the snappy “Pon de Replay” beat, and Boucher’s vocals, influenced by the Joni Mitchell song of the same title. She sings of the dangers of “commodifying all the pain,” and says, “You only like me when I’m looking sad”; even before she mentioned Pitchfork when talking about the song, could the target be anyone other than music journalists? The chorus has stayed in my head since I’ve first heard it.
Even catchier is the lead single, “Flesh Without Blood.” As an assertion of Boucher’s production prowess, it’s staggering: The beats come fast and from all over, with each measure unfolding like a party-starting Rube Goldberg reaction. As an assertion of her songwriting power, it’s even more undeniable, with a verse melody that jags up and down and up and down and up again, and a chorus that juxtaposes low and high singing even more dramatically. The lyrics alternate between two sides of a doomed relationship that could very well be the one between Grimes and listeners who don’t want her to evolve. “Just let me go,” she commands; underneath, guitar and bass rumble like an engine.
Elsewhere on the album, she’s more interested in communicating bliss—but not the carefree kind. On a newly anthemic version of the wonderful “REALiTi,” which she released as a demo earlier this year, she creates a lilting house reverie about the idea that happiness only comes through struggle. And during the loungey, hypnotic back-to-back of “Easily” and the title track, she describes a hot-and-cold relationship—maybe with a friend, a fan, a lover, or her own muse. “Don’t tell me with your story, cause I’ve got my own,” she sings in yet another line begging to be interpreted as meta-career commentary. “Never better, just less immediate.”
The public narrative around Boucher’s follow-up to Visions has been an archetypal one about an experimentalist finding sudden fame and then having to decide whether to go artier or go poppier. Art Angels is definitely poppier, but it would be deranged to see the results as compromised. It reminds me in spirit, if not sound, of Nicki Minaj’s bonkers Roman Reloaded, which resolved the competing desires for hard rapping and blockbuster-chart pop by going full-speed in both directions, resulting in a dense, defiant work that took the public a while to digest. Now, Grimes’s songs are becoming stranger but more inviting at the same time, even as her artistic point becomes clearer, more pointed. Video games, dance music, soaring singalongs, studio tinkering—these are all activities that can make someone feel invincible. Five tracks in, she sings, “You’ll never get sad and you’ll never get sick and you’ll never get weak / We’re deep in the Belly of the Beat.” From there, a perfect position to strike.
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