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Grimes’ brilliant, genre-defying ‘Art Angels’

| Monday, November 9, 2015

Grimes_webEric Richelsen | The Observer

In a conversation facilitated by The FADER earlier this year, Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig and Carles, the writer behind the blog Hipster Runoff, discussed the state of indie music and the concept of authenticity. “I think ‘indie’ was about romanticizing amateurism in music and media,” Carles explained. Koenig concurred: “The amateur/professional dichotomy is just about destroyed now.”

Perhaps no artist of the past five years embodies the blurring of those lines more than Grimes, the project of Canadian electro-pop musician Claire Boucher. She became an indie sensation on the strength of her excellent 2012 album “Visions,” which she recorded in her bedroom and produced herself on GarageBand — the epitome of the digital age notion that any art-school kid with a laptop could potentially become a pop star. Grimes’ sound on “Visions” was equally “post-Internet,” an iTunes library pastiche that filtered influences as eclectic as Mariah Carey, Marilyn Manson and Enya into a dark electronic template entirely her own.

After nearly four years, Grimes has finally returned with its follow-up: “Art Angels,” a brilliant genre-defying masterwork about retaining your humanity online in the face of those trying to reduce you to a million pixels. It’s an album that retains the DIY spirit of “Visions” — Boucher once again played every instrument herself and produced the entire album — even as its songs are coated in a much glossier sheen. The album is, by far, her best work as a producer to date, maintaining her weird streak even as it refines her pop sensibilities.

“Art Angels” is even more of a collage than “Visions,” embracing a kitchen-sink approach to pop production. The album’s first proper track, “California,” pairs twangy guitars and near-yodeling over the drums from Rihanna’s “Pon de Replay.” Boucher described the track as being “sonically as uncool as I could make it,” and indeed, its sound often approximates Rednex’s “Cotton Eyed Joe.” It is followed up by “Scream,” which blends together surf guitars, guttural screams and verses from the Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes.

The songs often recall the bizarro-world bubblegum of PC Music, the London-based pop music collective whose high-concept Eurodance experiments push the artificiality of pop music to its extreme. Grimes, however, remains deeply human even in the midst of her more maximalist tendencies. These songs are always coming from a deeply emotional place — nowhere more so than on the pulsing highlight “REALiTi,” on which she stares death in the face.

Boucher has said the album contains “a lot of diss tracks” and that newfound sense of aggression is one of the most exhilarating aspects of “Art Angels.” It often feels like the soundtrack to a fantasy video game — one in which you can inhabit any number of characters and act more threatening than you ever would in real life. On the cover, Boucher has drawn herself as an anime three-eyed space elf, while on the closing track she sings as an Amazon butterfly affected by deforestation. The cheerleader-gone-assassin jam “Kill V. Maim” is from the POV of a gender-switching, space-traveling Michael Corleone. She goes from chanting letters to delivering a ferocious rallying cry: “You gave up being good when you declared a state of war!”

Boucher also grapples with the dark side of Internet fame: constant harassment on social media and conscription into the clickbait cycle (“Grimes takes one-day hiatus from veganism!”). Lead single “Flesh without Blood” is her most blatant play for a Top 40 hit, but its verses echo comment-section critics decrying her moves toward the mainstream: “Your voice, it had the perfect glow / It got lost when you gave it up though / ‘Cause you want money, you want fame.” On the defiant “Venus Fly,” she teams up with R&B cyborg Janelle Monáe to rail against objectification. “Why are you looking at me?” Boucher and Monáe growl, before the track gives way to an equally menacing violin solo.

With “Art Angels,” Grimes has made a defiantly bizarre pop masterpiece, indie rock’s ideas of coolness and authenticity be damned. She herself puts it best on the album’s closing track: “If you’re looking for a dream girl / I’ll never be your dream girl.”

5/5 stars

If you like: PC Music, Mariah Carey, Enya

Tracks: “Kill V. Maim,” “REALiTi,” “Venus Fly”

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About Matthew Munhall

Matthew thinks everyone should listen to Charly Bliss.

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