My column on my NL Rookie of the Year ballot is up for Insiders.
Grimes’ Art Angels (buy on amazon or iTunes) is the best album of 2015, and the best album I’ve heard since alt-J’s 2012 debut An Awesome Wave. Canadian singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Claire Boucher, who records under the pseudonym Grimes, has created a masterful indie-pop performance that transcends genres and incorporates wildly diverse sounds into a cohesive, intelligent offering that never lets up from the ninety-second opener to the final song’s declaration of independence.
Grimes’ third album, 2012’s Visions, brought her substantial critical acclaim, notably for the singles “Genesis” and “Oblivion,” which received plenty of airplay on alternative radio and led to multiple recommendations from many of you, but I couldn’t get past the juvenile sound of her high-register vocals and the electropop leanings of the music. Grimes has ditched GarageBand, which she used to record much of that last album, for more sophisticated digital audio workstation software, and it is reflected in the worldliness of the music itself. The maturation process from there to Art Angels was, by all accounts, arduous, including an entire album that Grimes scrapped, the one-off single “Go” (rejected by Rihanna’s people, because I guess her people are idiots), and the song “REALiTi,” which survived the trashing of the lost album and reappears here in a more polished form. This is the Grimes album with vision, delivering rather than promising, with marked increases in the sophistication of her music and her lyrics.
After that brief intro track, Grimes delivers the first of many surprises on the album with “California,” a sunny track that gives off the illusion of an acoustic or folk-rock song, but is largely electronic and hides a dark, cynical take on the record industry through a metonymical use of the state to represent the entertainment industry. (Grimes has spoken publicly before about how the mainstream record industry does not, in her view, treat indie artists well.) From that luminous track we downshift into the album’s darkest song, “Scream,” with all lyrics courtesy of the female Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes, who raps entirely in Mandarin with a menacing, breathy delivery that matches the funereal music beneath her. If you’ve survived this hairpin turn, you’ve gotten the hang of Art Angels, which refuses to choose a single direction yet manages to squeeze a panoply of styles into a single tent.
Lead single “Flesh Without Blood” is the most traditional song on the record in both its structure and the melodic nature of the vocals, but would still jar listeners to straight pop stations if it came on after the latest four minutes’ hate from OneRepublic. “Kill v. Maim” and “Venus Fly” both show Grimes asserting her individuality and particular brand of feminism, with the former seeing her voice as high as it gets on the album, which is fine with me as I think she starts to sound very young at the top end of her range, although here it also seems like an allusion to J-pop traditions and is interspersed with the occasional death-metal scream. “Venus Fly” features vocals from Janelle Monáe, who will appear on your album if you just remember to include a self-addressed stamped envelope, in an articulate rant about how women in music are judged on their appearances, with a number of lines that sound like they should end in “boy” if you’ve been reared on vapid, modern pop music.
The title track is a real sleeper, the kind of song Daft Punk tried and failed to craft on their Grammy-winning album Random Access Memories, between the funk-guitar riff and the layered synthesized drum lines, with lyrics that express her love for her adopted home city of Montréal. I might be alone in preferring the raw demo version of “REALiTi” we got back in the spring, where her vocals were more seductive even when she veered on the edge of falsetto; although the current version maintains the basic hook of the original, her vocals are honed to a finer point, excising the demo’s dreamlike quality.
Grimes’ lyrics have improved enormously over the last three years, with greater use of metaphor and new phrasings, with very few lines that clunk enough to detract from the songs as a whole. (“California” does have a line about how certain music “sounds just like my soul;” I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a song lyric using the word “soul” in a secular or metaphorical sense that didn’t sound like something from a teenager’s poetry notebook.) She’s covering a ton of thematic ground here, but they’re all tied together under the banner of the experiences of a woman in a male-dominated industry that is rife with sexism, harassment, and superficial judgments. When the slightly saccharine closer, “Butterfly,” concludes with Grimes’ assertion that she’ll “never be your dream girl,” it’s clear she’s both refusing to bend herself to be what someone else wants and saying that the song’s target isn’t worthy of her time. It’s a compulsive listen without a dud to be found, with so many changes in musical direction that she grabs your attention from the start and holds it, rapt, until she tells you to kiss off in the closing track. It’s an album that demands repeated listening.