In Review: Art Angels

From her outspoken posts on a social media platform she’s proven herself fluent in, to her D.I.Y. approach and the many executive creative decisions she takes (like scrapping an album due to be released last summer), to allegedly trolling Boiler Room online cognoscenti, Claire Boucher A.K.A. Grimes has always made it clear she does things on her own terms. The resourceful young pop artist has time and again managed to avoid the roving eye of a music media constantly trying to pigeonhole her. In doing so, she’s managed to hold down a stylistic spot – somewhere between ebullient pop and experimental electronica – that has, for a while now, really sounded her own.

Consequently, onlookers might have expected Boucher to keep her audience guessing and go at her new LP from a different tack altogether. But it’s definitely the pop side that wins over in Art Angels. The album opener, “laughing and not being normal” – despite a slightly hokey title – might seem to give the lie to this notion at first, with its unnerving strings and shrill vocals, but once that feeds into “California” and the LP begins to work towards its stride proper, a clearer consistency begins to appear. This is especially true once the album makes it past the slightly more left-field “Scream” (an excellent spoken-word track with Taiwanese rapper, Aristophanese), and it transitions into the first single Grimes released from the album, “Flesh Without Blood”.

Attached as part of the teaser release for the single was the short, tongue-in-cheek afterthought “Life in the Vivid Dream”, which finds itself separated from its counterpart by nine tracks in the record’s final layout. Together, they soundtrack a weird, kitsch send-up of a pop music video, complete with an array of fantastically ghoulish costumes and a five-act structure (your guess is as good as mine…). This is the first in a series of about half a dozen dark, twisted and hugely catchy synthpop tunes that are as freewheeling and otherworldly as they are engaging socio-cultural comments very much rooted in the world around us.

On a more personal level, Boucher appears to be addressing some of her own critics in a number of these songs. For instance, when she sings, “Big beats, black cloud/ Get it wrong, get it loud,/ Write a song, get it down,/And everyone will know,” in the album’s closer “Butterfly”, despite it ending on – if anything – a gleeful and soaring note, she appears to be making quite a pointed statement about how her songwriting is construed by online music publications. And on “California”, a song that’s alleged to be a scathing criticism of the music website Pitchfork: “The things they see in me, I cannot see myself/ When you get bored of me, I’ll be back on the shelf…I don’t understand what they say/ ‘Cause I get carried away/ Commodifying all the pain”. I’ll leave you to make up your own mind on that one.

It’s these songs, formally as much as lyrically, that come to make up the prevailing direction of Art Angels. An airier, updated version of the “Realiti” demo kept on by Boucher from last year’s abandoned album illustrates her adept and still-growing skill as a producer, one who can separate the wheat from the chaff and give previously immobile tracks a new lease of life. Another case in point is her sampled beat of Rihanna’s “Pon de Replay” on “California”, as well as the well-judged arrangement of sustained, layered vox, electronic claps, electric and airbrushed acoustic guitar on songs like “Belly of the Beast”. When taken against the sharp points of her lyrics, these pop-electronica arrangements end up creating an unstable tone – one that moves between imaginative euphoria and a more introspective melancholy all the way throughout the LP.

Structurally, Art Angels’ shape is more like Visions than Halfaxa or Geidi Primes. More stand-alone hits than a fluid development of samples, loops and chopped-up melodies (though, there are minor hints of that on the recycled synth line from “Genesis” you can hear on “Pin”). In spite of this, though, the album doesn’t really run out of steam at all, mostly as a result of its clever sequencing and well-thought-out production.

Boucher really seems to be enjoying what she’s doing as Grimes again and, just as importantly, she seems to be taking the music where she wants to go with it. All this is plain to see in the infectious sense of fun which saturates the album, one that’s full of energetic, thumping pop tunes. Some people in the online music blogosphere have probably overstated how good it is (though, Arcade Fire’s Will Butler definitely couldn’t be accused of this) – and I can see how, at first glance, some people might not see past the ‘cutesy’ pop sheen (part of an almost MPDG typecasting that Boucher consciously works to deconstruct as Grimes) – but her determination to get this album down just how she wanted, alongside the attention to detail in its production, is impressive indeed. It’s something (at the very least) that no one can take away from her, or the record.

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