Grimes‘ 2012’s breakthrough Visions was an exuberant, unpredictable release, characterised by its barely-decipherable, wispy vocal lines and thumping Roland synth lines. Claire Boucher’s self-penned description of her sound as “ADD music” seemed an apt way to characterise tracks like “Circumambient” and “Genesis”, their unorthodox beats and memorable lyrical snippets drawing favourable comparisons to fellow 4AD artist Tune-Yards and cementing Grimes’ place as one of the more unique synth pop artists of the century.
Two tracks into long awaited follow up Art Angels and it’s quite clear there’s a concerted shift away from the sound of Boucher’s previous LPs, “California” is Grimes’ glossiest and least lo-fi track to date, if not for its idiosyncratic production and poignant lyrics, it could easily pass for a Katy Perry record. Likewise, the crescendoing, filter heavy guitar riff and heartfelt chorus “you had every chance to destroy everything, now you know” of “Flesh Without Blood” seem destined for mainstream radio play, and provide the stand out track of the album.
Janelle Monae’s feature on “Venus Fly” demonstrates new found pop sensibilities, “Hey, what about me?” provides the pugnacious hook, elsewhere title track “Artangels” saccharine coated piano conflicts a chirpy production with forlorn lyrics: “Everything I love is consolation after you”. “Kill V Maim” is perhaps the track most reminiscent of Grimes’ original sound, with pitch-shifted, cheerleader vocals layered over a Crystal Castles – style beat.
Art Angels seems destined to make a commercial impact, as well as mark a more welcome return to the public eye for the Canadian artist, who made headlines last year after feuding with Los Angeles experimental artist Ariel Pink, for what she perceived to be his misogynistic comments regarding Madonna on social media. Grimes’ views on the treatment of female artists in the music industry have been well publicised since her rise to prominence and following the Twitter dispute, and seemingly manifest themselves lyrically in “California”: “When you get bored with me I’ll be back on the shelf” and “I didn’t think you’d end up treating me so bad”.
It was always a tall order to top the breakout success of tracks like “Oblivion”, but Art Angels will appease long time fans and new listeners alike. Boucher’s impressive array of vocal styles is matched by an eclectic set of influences, from Mariah Carey to Soft Cell, to the witch house of Tri Angle records and the raucous, underground noise rock artists that frequented Vancouver’s Emergency Room venue.
If there’s one similarity between Visions and Art Angels, it’s the ease and adeptness by which Grimes combines seemingly disparate sounds into instant anthems. Not present on the album is 2014 single “Go”, shelved along with a number of tracks and described by the artist as “too depressing”; it’s now clear why the Blood Diamonds collaboration was deemed too incongruous for this release.
While Grimes may have shaken up her instrumentation, swapping sequencer loops for a more conventional, band-like arrangement, her unmistakable style remains imprinted on this record. Art Angels is as instantly identifiable and as intensely engaging as its predecessor. Album closer “Butterfly” demonstrates a keen ear for sampling, and perfectly summarises Grimes’ effortless genre-hopping, clashing distinct house and R&B sounds with results that are sure to stay on repeat.
Those with aversion to sun soaked pop may find this record a polarising listen at first, but Art Angels is such a starkly diverse and intriguing album, even on first listen, that it’d be hard for even the most cynical of listeners to not take something away from its vision. Out now on 4AD, Grimes’ Art Angels can be purchased from iTunes here.
Words by Joseph David Horne
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