By Aaron Jackson
Another Grimes album, another month and a half of me trying to figure out what the heck she’s singing. Yup, if you haven’t guessed it already, Canadian recording artist: Grimes, AKA Claire Boucher, as of November 6, 2015, has released her fourth studio album, Art Angels.
Production for the album, according to Boucher, began directly after her 2012 release, Visions. By 2014, she stated that she had written hundreds of songs but decided to scrap them all and begin from scratch because she thought it wasn’t much of a sonic departure from the previous record. Boucher can also be credited for having sole control over Art angels, something she didn’t have with Visions. The only outside influences that have anything to do with her work are the two artists who are featured: R&B artist, Janelle Monáe, and Taiwanese rapper, Aristophanes (AKA Pan Wei-Ju). One thing that really fascinates me about Grimes is that she herself also produces her own music-both lyrically and sound wise- which is somewhat of a rarity amongst artists in the music biz.
With that, the question remains if the record is a train that derailed and caught on fire, i.e. a wreck (Can you seriously say that you trust an artist to produce her own work, heck, I can barely trust myself to write my own papers). But I think, it’s quite the opposite. Art Angels is maximalism at its finest and I know that sounds like a contradictory statement as having too much of anything in one work sounds like it’d be a disjointed mess, but everything in the album works together quite nicely. You’re gonna get Claire making beats out of what sounds like shoes squeaking on a newly waxed floor. You’re gonna get her recording a track entirely in Mandarin Chinese where the only thing she herself does is produce it and… y’know, scream, and most of all you’re definitely gonna get Claire applying all sorts of surreal and beautiful distortions to her voice and the distortions themselves all come under her own unique, self-made brand.
If it wasn’t already clear enough, Claire especially shines in her production. Simply put, it’s weird – but it’s also so much more than that. The way she mixes instruments and plays with synths discards any traditional rules. Instead, she adds in whatever she just thinks is gonna sound well, heck she even said herself that some songs contain her reciting poetry in the background. All these elements come together to create a unique and frankly surreal experience. Art Angels also shines in its lyrical content as well, whether it’s her dissing PitchFork in “California” or singing about a butterfly that lost its home to deforestation in “Butterfly”, you can expect some lyrical gold in every vein of each track.
Now onto the specifics. Art Angels has a runtime of approximately 49 minutes and comes with 15 tracks. The record, while just being blanketed as “Pop”, and while it is very much pop, offers you a plethora of diverse subgenres that all don’t really sound the same or follow the same formula. For example there’s the kinda 90’s R&B, kinda funk inspired title track, “ArtAngels”, which you definitely can’t compare to “Venus fly”, which features Monae and gives you the urge to break into a fit of dancing. There’s also the chiptune, 8-bit video game inspired “World Princess pt.II” and the angsty-teen/emo, garage pop track, “Flesh without blood”, but more importantly, there’s the overly pretentious (in a good way), peppy, bubblegum pop track, “Kill V. Maim”.
“Kill V. Maim” is what I, and many of Grimes’ fans and even herself, consider to be the best song off the album. According to Claire, the lyrical perspective comes from that of Al Pacino (from The Godfather Pt II)…but…he’s also a non-binary, space travelling vampire and honestly that concept couldn’t be more relatable. There’s a certain, “in your face – not taking any crap” vibe that this track just radiates which is especially seen when Grimes breaks out the Cheerleader chants in the buildup to the chorus, carelessly singing “B-E-H-A-V-E, Aggressive!” like it’s the most obvious, non-consequential thing to do in any given situation. I mean, if Grimes was trying to cure some anxiety and boost some confidence while she’s at it, then she definitely did with this one. She herself also stated that this song was one of the hardest to produce, and just give it one listen and you’ll understand why. There are these layers upon layers of electric guitar as well as these electronic beats that somehow go so well together with a suddenly now high-pitched Grimes singing over them.
Another noteworthy song on the track is “RealiTi” (yes, that’s really how it’s spelled). “RealiTi” was written before Grimes decided to scrap the first batch of songs and begin producing new material, and to hold her fans over, she released a music video for “RealiTi”. After receiving viewer and critical acclaim, Grimes settled on reworking the song and slapping it on the album. The main differences between the demo and album version is that the demo gives you a more ambient-atmospheric feeling, whereas this one carries a lot more production. Personally I like the album version more, it’s more polished – it’s defined and sharp and feels like it knows what it’s about instead of being kind of a run-on, anticlimactic song like its predecessor. In the end both versions give off a kind of celebratory vibe as she reminisces about the beauty in the struggle about some past relationship. The whole track also has theses surreal synths edging throughout it tied together with a bundle of nuances that add to its uniqueness.
Lastly, an underrated song but one of my favorites off of the album is “Pin”. “Pin” has sort of a sing-song rhythm to it – like it could have been recorded by Melanie Martinez. It also has a certain pretentiousness in the lyrics and no, not the kind of “Don’t mess with me” pretentiousness like “Kill V. Maim”, but more off a condescending, “well, I told you so” pretentiousness. This track is also one of the more reflective ones off the album. If you look at the lyrics it offers you up a somewhat dark ( and kind of disturbing) tale of “blood on your knees” and “Tearing out your hair like a banshee” which she does an amazing job at trivializing with the way she just glosses over the lyrics and makes everything seem so sugary sweet and non-traumatic. It’s as if you just accused her of killing a man and her only response is a careless giggle, followed by a “well…I guess”
Anyway onto the tracks I don’t care much for. Starting us off is “Scream”, yup you guessed it, I don’t like the Mandarin Chinese rap track. Now don’t get me wrong, the song on a whole isn’t bad; Production wise, rap wise (and yes, even Grimes-randomly-screaming wise), it offers itself up to be cohesive for most parts but when it does falter, it’s really not pretty. Firstly the production can be a bit all over the place at times and Aristophanes’ delivery on some of the lines can come off as a middle schooler trying to freestyle. Also, direction wise the song is kind of a mess as it just randomly shifts its tempo coming towards the end and the quality makes it a tad uncomfortable to listen too as you can hear every breath and slurp Aristophanes takes – ew.
Also we have “Easily”, there isn’t anything really quote unquote bad with this song. It’s just that it’s lackluster compared to the other tracks on the album; it lacks any actual personality and sounds like it could’ve been played over the radio – not that that’s a bad thing but after you just got done listening to “Artangels” and “Kill V. Maim”, the songs that play just before it, it comes off as extremely basic, boring and uninteresting.
All in all, this is one heck of an Album and I‘m glad that it was my first taste of Grimes. Sure, it’s not for everyone, but it is one of Grimes’s more approachable works and should definitely be given a chance – because I promise you, this is an impressive show of over ambition done right and if I had to give it a score, it’d be a solid 9/10.