Review by Michael O'Neill
“When you get bored of me, I’ll be back on the shelf,” sings Grimes on “California,” the second song on her new album Art Angels. With these words, she’s effectively flipping off the entire indie music scene, calling out critics and fans alike for their tendency to dismiss anything that doesn’t live up to their expectations. Art Angels as a whole centers around this concept of favoring self-fulfillment over flawed attempts to satisfy others. Completely self-produced and more pop-inclined than anything Grimes has done before, Art Angels shows an artist fully capable of pursuing her own vision independent of the hive-mindedness and patriarchy of the music industry.
Grimes has been a polarizing figure in alternative music since she first became well-known. When she soared to blog-fueled fame in 2012 with “Oblivion” and “Genesis,” those who weren’t bopping their heads and tapping their feet were criticizing her baby-faced vocals and, as the Boston Phoenix put it, “off-putting purposeful quirkiness.” Some saw her as an undeserving beneficiary of the so-called “poptimism” allegedly emerging among alternative music publications, her mechanical sound invading territory usually reserved for guitar rock and the occasional computer-heavy Radiohead album. Nevertheless, her 4AD debut Visions catapulted Grimes into indie music superstardom. Every word out of her mouth became a news story, the record ended up on many year-end best of lists, and last year Pitchfork named “Oblivion” the best song of the 2010s thus far.
After the runaway success of Visions, Grimes (real name Claire Boucher) could have caved under the pressure and expectations that come customary with making a follow-up to a breakthrough record. Many saw her as a potential bridge between underground music and top 40 radio, and openly encouraged her to make that crossover on her then-upcoming release. Others, however, wanted to keep their burgeoning star a secret, as demonstrated by the wave of negative reactions to last year’s decidedly-commercialized single “Go.” Essentially, Grimes has a lot of people in her ear - both music writers and fans alike - telling her where to go next. But instead, Boucher decided to not try and please anybody else but herself; she says as much with the album’s closing lyric, “I’ll never be your dream girl.” Art Angels is an album made by Grimes for Grimes, and the end result is better than anything she could have forced herself to create in an attempt to cater to the blogosphere.
After all the speculation and scrutiny, Grimes ended up splitting the middle on Art Angels. The album certainly has a heavy pop influence, being far more melodic and less atmospheric than Visions, and contains a fair few candy-coated hooks. At the same time, Art Angels is still distinctively odd enough to avoid any threat of making the jump to the mainstream. It’s a record bursting at the seams with unrelenting energy and addictive rhythms, while also possessing a vaguely alien-like sound, merging the saccharine vocals of Britney Spears with the extraterrestrial vibes of artists like St. Vincent or Spiritualized.
While a cynic might say that Boucher deliberately rode the line between commercial and weird in order to appeal to the widest range of her existing fan base and music critics, the enthusiasm and sincerity she displays in these songs makes it clear that she made the album she wanted to make. Rarely does such a heavily-produced record sound so natural, so purely creative as Art Angels does.
Some of the songs on Art Angels speak directly to those who dissect her every move, whether it be a shift in musical decision or an off-hand tweet. “California,” whose beat resembles that of Rihanna’s “Pon de Replay,” touches on this, with Grimes pointing out, “The things they see in me, I cannot see myself” and “You only like me when you think I’m looking sad.” These words are backed by a sunny instrumental, which, coupled with the song’s gleeful eponymous refrain, proves that Grimes can do fun just as well as she can do gloom. Lead single “Flesh without Blood” continues to showcase Boucher’s disillusionment with the indie scene, as she cries, “It’s nice that you say you like me/But only conditionally/Your voice, it had the perfect glow/It got lost when you gave it up though/Cause you want money, you want fame.”
Grimes also uses Art Angels to speak out about the music industry’s mistreatment of women, a topic she described in her recent excellent feature with Fader.
“Going into studios, there’s all these engineers there, and they don’t let you touch the equipment,” she said. “I was like, ‘Well, can I just edit my vocals?’ And they’d be like ‘No, just tell us what to do, and we’ll do it.’ And then a male producer would come in, and he’d be allowed to do it. It was so sexist. I was, like, aghast. It made me really disillusioned with the music industry. It made me realize what I was doing is important.”
Art Angels reflects this experience, having been produced solely by Boucher herself and featuring not a single male voice. In fact, it’s hard to find any definitive evidence that a single man made any contribution to the album whatsoever, from the music to the production to the artwork, which Grimes drew herself. Other than the two featured vocalists (both women as well), Grimes has had full control over every single aspect of Art Angels, resulting in a definitively individualistic piece of art that stands as a statement of female empowerment in music.
The songs contribute to this mission as well. The female-power anthem “Venus Fly” invokes one of mythology’s most famous Goddesses and features the fiercely independent Janelle Monáe, who interrogates the music industry by asking if they’d still be “looking at [her]” if she “pulled her teeth” and cut her hair short. Meanwhile, highlight track “Kill V. Maim” sees Grimes sarcastically excuses past indiscretions by claiming “Cause I’m only a man/Do what I can.” The cheekiness with which she delivers these lines is both side-splitting and incisive. We also get to see Boucher’s singing at its most primal here, as she shrieks “I got in a fight but they don’t know me.”
Beyond the lyrics, the actual music on Art Angels is simply fantastic. The LP boasts a fair few absolute monoliths of joyful noise, from the aforementioned guitar-pop anthem “Flesh without Blood” to the strangely yet enjoyably metallic “SCREAM,” which features Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes over a marching band complete with snare rolls and whistles. Closing track “Butterfly” taps into the same tropical vibes that pop smashes like Nico & Vinz’s “Am I Wrong” and Jack Ü single “Where Are Ü Now” without the cliched lyrics and general corniness that weigh those two songs down. The re-worked version of “Realiti,” previously released as a demo, is probably the album’s crowning moment. The subtle layering of the keyboards coupled with Boucher’s radiant echo-chamber vocals is masterful, and I dare you to find a beat more infectious than this one.
Art Angels is the brainchild of a musical mastermind, and the fact that essentially the entire album is the product of one artist is simply remarkable. It’s the kind of album that could only be made in this day and age, from the home-studio feel and computer-heavy production to its seamless combination of electronic eccentricity and pop sensibility to its addressing of online music blogs and internet fandom. A defiant statement against the concept of public image, Art Angels has immediately been thrusted into the conversation of the year’s best albums, and firmly establishes Grimes as one of the most talented and progressive artists making music today.