album review

Grimes’s Art Angels Is Superhero Music for Introverts

At the end of 2012, the year that her hypnotic breakout album Visions was released, the Canadian electro-pop musician Grimes, whose real name is Claire Boucher, gave an interview to the music critic Jessica Hopper. “I was interested in the Japanese archetype of a female protagonist who is very small and very cute and very physically powerful,” Boucher said, explaining the aesthetic that inspired her eminently GIF-able videos for “Genesis” and “Oblivion.” “You don’t see that archetype in America.” Earlier in the interview, Boucher had been asked to comment on the most controversial item for sale at her merch table, “pussy rings” — self-designed sets of plastic brass knuckles shaped like vaginas. She was dismayed about the supposed controversy and the fact that people still found this sort of imagery taboo, but she also seemed amused by unapologetic femininity’s surprisingly aggressive power to offend. “If you punched someone with the ring on,” she said, mischievously, “It would leave a clitoris-shaped imprint on their face.”

Grimes’s wonderful new album Art Angels is nothing short of a pussy-ring punch to the jaw. It is at once her most sugary record and her most menacing — a stick of Bazooka Joe paired not with a comic strip but a switchblade. Its most brazen embraces of pure pop pleasure and, God forbid, “girliness” are somehow its most defiant moments. I can only describe standout stadium bangers “Kill V. Maim” and “Venus Fly” (which features Janelle Monae) as “bizarro-world feminist Jock Jams” and have already updated their iTunes genre tags accordingly. Art Angels’ moments of lush softness, though, feel just as bold because they put Boucher’s voice and vision into crisper-than-ever focus. On Visions, she had a tendency to hide behind gauzy production and unintelligible lyrics, but with Art Angels, it seems, she’s ready for confrontation and provocation. When I saw her play a party at the Guggenheim earlier this week, the small changes she’d made to her old live arrangements were telling of her evolution. Notes that she’d once sung in a lilting, stratospheric falsetto had transformed into piercing and sometimes even guttural screams.

Boucher is a veteran of Montreal’s underground scene (her first release was 2010’s murky-pretty lo-fi tape Gedi Primes, named after a planet in Dune), but she’s just as much a child of the internet — which is to say a resident of everywhere. Grimes’s music has become such perennial think-piece fodder because of how conveniently it embodies pretty much all the major changes that the digital age has wrought on the industry: Her avant-pop sound captures the dissolving boundaries between the underground and the mainstream, her genre- and cultural omnivorousness speak to her generation’s ability to access nearly every piece of music ever recorded anywhere in the world, her storied creation myth of recording Visions alone on Garage Band affirms the idea that in 2015, any awkward kid with a laptop can become the next hot producer or pop star. But in the nearly four years since Visions, Boucher has come to find that there’s a dark side to being a post-internet concern: Everything you do happens in a fishbowl — including recording the much-anticipated follow-up to an album you made in comfortable anonymity. Fans who clocked her every move via her frequently updated Tumblr seemed to be watching Boucher flit to and fro, from country to city, seeking inspiration that seemed to be evading her no matter where she went. She secluded herself in the woods of Squamish, British Columbia; she signed with Jay Z’s management company Roc Nation and moved to L.A. And yet, still, there was no record. As the months and then years ticked by, there seemed to be more and more reason to think Visions was a happy accident, a visitation from some sort of muse that might never come her way again.

Art Angels is, without a doubt, a record with something to prove — that’s the reason it took so long to make. Though she could have worked with any number of producers and gotten just about anybody to play on it, Boucher produced it all herself and played every instrument on the damn thing (which meant that she spent some of those three-and-a-half years teaching herself how to play the ukulele and violin.) Depending on how you look at it, this painstaking independence is either admirable or excessive, but it’s hard to deny that one of the great joys of Art Angels is hearing Boucher (who self-recorded the scrappy Gedi Primes just five years earlier) come into her own as a producer. She blends her disparate influences seamlessly. The gorgeous “Easily” asks us to imagine a world in which Skrillex had produced Donna Lewis’s “I Love You Always Forever” (which is a JAM, never forget); the ecstatic “Artangels” totally nails the bubblegum-new-jack-swing vibe that Jack Antonoff swung for and missed on Taylor Swift’s slightly-too-studied “I Wish You Would.” Working as her own producer has given the naturally shy Boucher a kind of split personality that she says has been liberating for her as a performer, allowing her “Grimes” persona to become something larger than life and superhuman. “It’s like I’m Phil Spector,” she said in a recent interview, “And then there’s Grimes, which is the girl group.”

But Art Angels takes more contemporary cues than, say, the alien-Shirelles vibe of a Visions song like “Oblivion.” There’s a Max Martin–like sheen to the great first single “Flesh Without Blood,” which sounds like “Since U Been Gone,” had it been recorded by the Cocteau Twins. “Kill v. Maim” has a zombie-cheerleader thing going on that’s reminiscent of Sleigh Bells, but its sharply ironic lyrics elevate it to an interesting meditation on the rigidity of gender norms (“I’m only a man, I do what I can,” Boucher sings in a kawaii helium voice that soon morphs into a low growl.) The most surprising song on the record, though, has got to be the twangy earworm “California,” whose lyrics on paper read like the musings of Boucher’s former tour mate Lana Del Rey (“California / You only like me when you think I’m looking sad”) but actually kind of sounds like — of all things — a pitch-shifted, post-EDM homage to Madonna’s “Don’t Tell Me.” I wish there were a few more songs with hooks this direct, particularly in place of the meandering “Belly of the Beat” and “World Princess, Pt. II,” the only two songs that sound like they could have been filler on Visions. These are small concerns, though; Art Angels is the perfect album for Grimes to make at this daunting, impossible-to-please-everybody junction in her career. It’s weird enough to satisfy her longtime fans, but polished enough to showcase her growing ambition. If this is the record that does make her a pop star, whatever the hell that even means in 2015, the world will be coming to her on her turf, not the other way around.

Immersing yourself in Art Angels is like being inside a vibrantly hued video game — a joyride down Rainbow Road. But for every moment that Boucher let us into her world, there’s another when she’s receding from view, lost in a private reverie, humming to amuse nobody but herself. And thank God, because this is the strange charm I was scared her music might lose as it sought and found a larger audience. “If you’re looking for a dream girl,” she sings with a hard-won assertiveness on the final track, “I’ll never be your dream girl.” Grimes still makes superhero music for introverts, fight songs for people who did not realize they were strong until the perfect song came along and told them so.

Album Review: Grimes’s Art Angels