Album Review

‘Art Angels’: Grimes Rejects The Rules of Pop and Paves Her Own Path

Art Angels Grimes

Don’t bother trying to put Grimes into a specific category, because it’s a futile exercise.

“The whole purpose of Grimes is that it’s genreless. Trying to constantly put a genre label on it makes no sense and then you are always eating your words two months later. So, why bother?” she told The Guardian last month.

Don’t bother asking which male Swedish super-producer or songwriter du jour helmed Art Angels, because she crafted the entire thing herself.

“The thing that I hate about the music industry is all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Grimes is a female musician’ and ‘Grimes has a girly voice.’ It’s like, yeah, but I’m a producer and I spend all day looking at fucking graphs and EQs and doing really technical work,” she told FADER. Months later, she revisited the idea in The Guardian: “The whole record was produced, engineered, written, performed by a woman, which is pretty rare. I don’t know if I ever heard a record like that, fully, with vocals on and stuff.”

Don’t call her a victim, either.

‘‘I was a much weaker person when I wrote Visions. It was a sad record- cathartic, but victim-y. During this album I’ve got control of my music. It feels more developed. On Visions I was still in school, mentally. Since then, I’ve wanted to make something strong and aggressive because it’s more reflective of me,” she explained in Q.

Art Angels, Grimes’ new album released last Friday (Nov. 6)defies whatever expectations or boundaries, gender be damned, that pop music maintains in 2015. It’s the kind of record that makes the sleekest, most polished records feel otherwise basic in comparison because of its willingness to disregard the pop playbook, and serves as proof that music can still be forward-thinking in this jaded age when it feels as though we’ve seen and heard it all before.

To be fair, we sort of have heard it all before…just in different configurations.

At the risk of sounding shady (and it’s not!), Grimes’ aesthetic — a mixture of high fashion, anime, fairies and pop princesses— is essentially a well-curated Tumblr or Pinterest board come to life. In a world overrun with #content, Grimes boils it down, molds it and makes it unique again.

Art Angels, she’s explained, was partly inspired by “bro-art” – specifically the music of Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen, as well as gangster movies. She told Q that album highlight “Kill V. Maim” was written from the perspective of Al Pacino in The Godfather Pt 2 — ‘‘except he’s a vampire who can switch gender and travel through space.’‘ She says Visions was a “sci-fi” record inspired by Britney and Beyoncé, and Art Angels is a “fantasy” record inspired by Enya.

She’s a thoroughly 21st century, “post-Internet” kind of pop star. Or maybe 22nd. Or 25th.

For those still getting acquainted, a majority of Grimes’ popularity came with 2012’s Visions, a dreamy collection of ethereal strangeness like “Oblivion” and “Genesis”, which captured the blogosphere’s attention with its utterly bonkers and brilliant video, featuring a dread-headed, sword-wielding Brooke Candy. She’d later explain that her last album was born out an unhealthy Adderall-fueled, sleep deprived session in Montreal.

And this new one? The product of a quiet retreat to Squamish, followed by a move to California — and no ridiculous deadlines to fuel another drug binge session.

As it turns out, a little breathing room, solitude and a few gasps of fresh British Columbia air before heading to Los Angeles to craft a record makes for greatness: Art Angels is Grimes’ muscliest, and most sensory overloading endeavor yet. Clarity is a theme in more ways than one: Her voice is now at the forefront more than ever — and actually audible, as opposed to the largely unintelligible alien mumbling on Visions. 

While indeed genre-free, the record makes frequent nods to pop, albeit recycled, flipped and rewired: In fact, there’s even a sample of Rihanna‘s “Pon De Replay” used as the beat of “California,” her self-described “hate track to Pitchfork.” That song, which she herself has mixed feelings about (“It’s kind of a shitty song. It’s not a shitty song,” she said in The Guardian), finds Grimes sailing across a breezy electro-twangy jaunt, like Rilo Kiley in hyper-speed, as she calls out her ever-fickle critics: “The things they see in me, I cannot see myself  / When you get bored of me, I’ll be back on the shelf.”

She goes in for the kill several times with a kind of happy aggression, like the menacing, shriek-filled “SCREAM,” recorded entirely in Mandarin by Taiwanese female rapper Aristophanes. “Venus Fly,” the album’s other collaboration, employs Wondaland android/super-genius Janelle Monae in a fierce-as-fuck futuristic feminist manifesto, rejecting unwanted advances above pulverizing beats. “Why you looking at me now? / Why you looking at me again? / What if I pulled my teeth? Cut my hair underneath my chin / Wrap my curls all around the world / Throw my pearls all across the floor!” they threaten, stomping across the speakers — like Britney’s “Do Somethin’,” Beyoncé’s “Run The World (Girls)” and the Spice Girls‘ enduring cry of “Girl Power!” thrown into a blender in the Year 2075.

Perhaps the hardest hit comes in the form of “Kill V. Maim,” the one written from the perspective of Pacino. The song is full of feisty personality, but with an undeniably bubbly sheen, like a K-pop group recording a Kill Bill theme song. There are about three fantastic choruses packed in one, complete with earnest commands (“WAIT, OH DON’T BE HATEFUL!“), Lana Del Rey-ish sing-songy spelling (“B-E-H-A-V-E!” — so very “Lolita”!) and delicious growls (“THEY DON’T KNOW ME!“) And those gender-bending lyrics! “I’m only a man…and I do what I can.” It’s astonishingly good — weird-pop at its finest.

Despite the album’s more “bro art”-influenced moments, the album has its fair share of chill, contemplative numbers: Lead single “Flesh Without Blood” might sound like a break-up song, but she insists it’s not. Alternatively, it reads as a biting response to critics and fans who accused her of selling out by making more accessible records, as she sails across the speakers on dreamy ambient guitars and punchy drums: “Your voice, it had the perfect glow / It got lost when you gave it up, though / ‘Cause you want money / You want fame,” she croons. “If you don’t need me…just let me go.

“REALiTi,” originally released as a demo from her “lost album” in between Visions and now, has been graciously tightened and fortified with even more robust production, providing new thrills that only serve to elevate the song’s ghostly gorgeousness. “Oh, baby, every morning there are mountains to climb / Taking all my time / Oh, when I get up, this is what I see / Welcome to reality.” Of all the new blips and bleeps, it’s that one, shiver-inducing extra note tacked on to the end of every utterance of “reality” (“reali-TY-yy!“) that makes all the difference in this entrancing final version. (Got a case of demo-itis and can’t shake the original? Don’t worry: She included the demo as a bonus track.)

The nostalgic, crashing rock-tinged sugar rush of “Pin” recalls a wild and reckless friendship, full of safety pin-pricked home tattoos in parking lots and A Midsummer Night’s Dream-referencing shenanigans in the woods. “Oo-oo, falling off the edge with you / It was too good to be true!” she hypnotically croons in a haze of crashing drums and dizzying electronica.

Closing track “Butterfly,” too, sees Grimes escaping into nature (or perhaps mourning the loss of it), flying on the wings of butterflies across a throbbing, undeniably chipper pulse. “Butterflies flying in the air / Oh no, it came / Higher than an aeroplane / Don’t know this song / Sweeter than a sugar cane / Why you looking for a harmony? / There is harmony in everything.” It’s like a Shinto-inspired theme for a future Studio Ghibli classic. Paging Totoro!

She isn’t always so stoic: “Life In The Vivid Dream,” a brief, heartbroken electro-guitar ballad that contains the slightest hint of Madonna‘s balladry on American Life, a la “Love Profusion.” “I could tell you that people are good in the end, but why would I?” she croons, showcasing her genuinely great voice. “It’s about how sad I feel that the world is succumbing to environmental crisis and govs and corporations don’t seem 2 care,” she explained on Twitter.

It’s hard to know exactly what Grimes is singing about sometimes, and that’s part of the appeal — and hardly a problem when the music itself is so intriguing: The springy “World Princess Pt. II,” which plays like a Sega Genesis theme slapped across a thick hip-hop beat and performed by J-Pop Vocaloid star Hatsune Miku, potentially feels like another diss track against her detractors and/or male producers: “I know, most likely, how I used to be: a frail and silly thought in your mind / Call me unkind, you’re so far behind me.”

If Grimes sounds cocky on Art Angels, she has a right to be: What she’s accomplished at her own hands easily (REFERENCE) blows predictable efforts by scores of male producers out of the water. That’s not to make this record into a dull gender competition, but it is to say that, quite frankly, all these expensive, cocky hit-makers don’t know everything. 

“There aren’t enough girls who [produce]. You don’t have to be Moby to use machines,” Utada Hikaru told Teen People back in 2004 of her almost entirely self-produced, experimental-pop English language debut, Exodus. A decade later, it’s startling to see how little has actually changed since — and it only makes Grimes’ accomplishment all the more vital.

“You’re mostly hearing male voices run through female performers. I think some really good art comes of it, but it’s just, like, half the population is not really being heard,” Grimes explained in The New Yorker. “I can’t use an outside engineer because, if I use an engineer, then people start being, like, ‘Oh! That guy just did it all.’”

Grimes has been divined into REALiTi by her creator, Claire Boucher, for a specific reason: She’s here to deliver the sound of the future, forewarn of the perils of fame, lead the charge for female-fronted music-making and prove that — no matter how meme-ified, commercialized, overexposed and watered-down the business becomes — music can, somehow, still feel incredibly fresh, unexpected and inspiring.

To quote Britney, only an (art) angel could be so unusual.

Required listening: “Kill V. Maim”, “Flesh Without Blood”, “REALiTi”, “Venus Fly”, “Pin”, “Butterfly” — I mean…all of it, really.

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Art Angels was released on November 6. (iTunes)