I just wanted Claire “Grimes” Boucher to be happy.
That’s odd for an album, but given that every artistic choice or news item about Grimes between 2012’s critically acclaimed Visions and now came with its own controversy, it seems like the only thing left. She released a pop single meant for Rihanna, and her fans hated her for it. She scrapped an entire album of material. She put out a demo song, and everyone loved it. She said the “Go” wasn’t meant for the album, anyway. Pitchfork called Visions single “Oblivion” the best song of the decade so far; Grimes says she hates it, and cringes when people hear her old albums because the new stuff is so much better. She sounds irritated with the whole process, which is totally understandable: Grimes is a self-conscious perfectionist, and working under intense scrutiny, pressure, and stakes that weren’t there last go around had to be agonizing (see also: Ocean, Frank. I don’t care if I never hear Boys Don’t Cry; I just want Frank to be at peace).
The time was worth it, though; Art Angels is fantastic on almost every level. The woozy, bedroom indie pop sounds from her previous work are still present throughout, but it’s like watching a YouTube clip from 2007 versus Blu Ray. You put “Genesis” from Visions against something like “Easily” or “World Princess, Pt. II”, and “Genesis” can’t help but sound a little chintzy next to Art Angels‘ clearer mixing and powerful bottom end. Grimes’ production style here uses tons of sounds in ever-changing arrangements that are both dramatic and subtle. On one hand, you’ve got moments like the chorus on “Kill V. Maim” where the guitar tracks, vocals, and pounding drums rip the song wide open, but slick moves like “Easily” at the same time, where there’s maybe a grounding element or two, like the beat and piano hook, but all sorts of elements fade in and out like a DJ set, and these are both enjoyable listens.
Actually, screw “enjoyable.” I’ll say it out right: “Kill V. Maim” is on the short list of my favorite songs of the year. Shit’s wild (it’s the much pull-quoted “gender switching, time-traveling vampire!Al Pacino” song). The song’s built on a dry, “Since U Been Gone” style guitar riff and a skittering drum beat that left turns into a mocking cheerleader chant and then pivots into a T.Rex of a chorus with snarling guitars and massive, stomping drums, giving that cheerleader all the force of a linebacker. And Grimes sounds absolutely batshit, jumping between her natural singing voice, the hyper-feminine cheerleader chant, throat destroying screams, and sped-up wailing while tossing off lyrics that are equally badass (“You gave up being good WHEN YOU DECLARED A STATE OF WAAAR”) and taunting (“Cuz I’m only a maaaan/And I do what I can”–sidenote, this feels like the perfect backhand to “Cuz I’m a maaaaaan woman”). It’s a bonkers, subversive, “I am on my shit” banger that distills everything great about Art Angels in four minutes. I love it so.
“Kill V. Maim” is the album’s undisputed highlight, but honestly, there’s a lot of grade A material here. Third track “Scream” best embodies the album’s “I do what I want” ethos: Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes spits two surreal verses in Mandarin over guitar reminiscent of Metallica’s “Fuel”, and the chorus is just screams and baby growls. What a time. “California” and “Flesh without Blood” sound like top 40 country and pop singles beamed from the same alternate robot dimension that spits out Missy Elliot singles. But the album’s backhalf has gems, too, like big-bassed “Venus Fly” with Janelle Monae that’s a middle finger to beauty standards doubling as a club banger, or interlude “Life in the Vivid Dream” that dabbles in acoustic trip-hop.
Other favorite, the incredibly pretty New Wave track “Pin”, spins that prettiness by matching it with lyrics about cutting fingernails and the blood on your knees. That sort of dissonance is common with Grimes, but used to its greatest effect on Art Angels. She wraps these grim sentiments and diss track lyrics in brightly colored, highly concussive packages: check out “Belly of the Beast” that uses “Everybody dies, we anoint their eyes, and we dance like angels do”, or “When you get bored of me I’ll be back on the shelf” from “California”. Or hell, all of “Flesh without Blood” and “Venus Fly.” A kiss with a fist, indeed.
The talking point around Art Angels is that it represents Grimes’ sellout or radio move, which just isn’t true. She’s still making off-kilter, gonzo pop, just without a layer of synth grime to make it weird. Instead, this album’s weird derives from its overloaded sound, like the clattering sound effects and, er, laser sounds that sprinkle “California”, or the constantly shifting beat of the title track and “Flesh without Blood.”, not to mention Grimes’ frequently sped or pitched up vocals. Art Angels is a pop music record, but it’s not pop the same sense that, say Delirium is (besides, can you imagine this cover art sharing shelf space with 25?).
There’s a slight dip in the middle of the album with “Easily” and “Artangels” back to back, but even that’s negligible because the songs are interesting enough. Art Angels is a masterclass album that establishes Grimes not just as a solid performer with a distinct vision, but as a potential big name producer down the road. She produced this entire album herself, can you imagine her doing a Nicki or Rihanna track, or a Gorillaz collaboration? It’s exciting. I’m honestly surprised at how much I like this album, especially because I couldn’t stand Visions (hating Visions feels like a minority opinion, so let me explain: I respected that, Grimes doing important work, but the songs didn’t grab me and the whole project felt it skated by on aesthetic at times. Couple that with the “post-internet bb” status Grimes had at the time, and just listening to the album made me feel like an asshole for liking indie music). Art Angels is, in a lot of ways, about the frustration in making Art Angels, and that could have turned toxic. But, it’s telling that the album’s last lyric, “If you’re looking for a dream girl/I’ll never be your dream girl” is a gleeful declaration. This is a record that kicks back at a world that harries you, but it doesn’t do so out of meanness or spite. It does so to declare the best thing a record can say in 2015: Here I am, and I love myself.