It’s been well over three years since Claire Boucher, better known as Grimes, released her acclaimed Visions, and now that she’s finally emerged with Art Angels (scrapping an entire album in the meantime), it’s a different beast entirely. The new release boasts a wide variety of instruments and lush pop production – for good or ill, it’s no longer music produced on a laptop in a psychedelic haze.
Upon starting the album you mightn’t notice the change. Opening track ‘Laughing and Not Being Normal’ is a new iteration on her trademark weirdness, a brief piece mixing classical instrumentation with high-pitched vocals and an ominous electronic noise moment at the end. It feels like an overture for what’s to come, despite being so wilfully at odds with most of it. It’s hard to describe Grimes as having ‘gone pop’ – her music was always a distorted, esoteric take on pop, after all. But it’s difficult to escape the feeling that she’s been listening to a lot of Taylor Swift.
It feels like an overture for what’s to come, despite being so wilfully at odds with most of it
Certainly the place where this influence feels like it’s been put to its most valuable use is ‘Flesh Without Blood’, one of the album’s pre-release singles (complete with fantastically silly music video). It’s four minutes of shamelessly upbeat, catchy pop cheese that could have come straight out of the eighties. It feels genuinely joyful, and much of the album proceeds similarly. On the other hand, some tracks do feel a bit plastic. The overproduced ‘California’ has its moments, but leaves a bad taste. Even ‘REALiTi’, the one survivor from the abandoned album, has been polished in a way that doesn’t ruin it but doesn’t add anything either.
Other places, we’re treated to the full blast of Boucher’s experimentalism. The shrieking vocals of ‘Kill V. Maim’ and the funky synths of ‘World Princess, Pt. II’ dip into strange waters. ‘Easily’ starts out with soothing piano, moves into a strange electronic diversion in the third minute and ends with a coda for strings (all of which works). ‘Life in the Vivid Dream’ is the most emotive music Boucher has ever produced, and yet it’s achieved with incredible restraint; a simple acoustic guitar tune threatens to build into something soaring, but instead dissolves before outstaying its welcome.
It feels like Boucher’s music has travelled a long way
The two featured guests on the album do great things for their respective tracks. Relative unknown Aristophanes, a Taiwanese rapper, contributes something wonderfully unhinged to the very accurately titled ‘Scream’, definitely the most memorably bizarre moment on the album. Janelle Monáe, the other queen of quirky, genre-bending pop, features on ‘Venus Fly’, which is several different songs at once, in sort of a good way.
Was Art Angels worth the wait? It’s difficult to say. It doesn’t quite capture the ethereal quality of Visions, but it doesn’t try to. Occasionally its forays into manufactured pop territory feel uninspired. But as a whole, there are more hits than misses, a few true gems, and it feels like Boucher’s music has travelled a long way, even if it does prove to be a detour.