Review: Grimes Roars Back on 'Art Angels'

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On her incredible new album Art Angels, Grimes crafts a glorious pop monster

Unlike most of her professional peers, Claire Boucher never dreamed about performing in front of adoring crowds. She instead longed to be Phil Spector — a great and powerful studio wizard who pulled the levers, turned the knobs, and manipulated the disembodied head on the other side of the curtain. But the easiest (and cheapest) artist to control is often oneself. So she created an alter-ego named Grimes, who stepped up to the mic and into the spotlight. Boucher’s public persona, the thoughtful weirdo’s thoughtfully weird diva, has already amassed a legion of social media fans, not to mention heaps of mainstream critical acclaim. Visions, her breakthrough third album, which she recorded in a breathless three-week sprint, was a mixed blessing for her career. It landed high on many 2012 year-end lists (including ours). Pitchfork named its beguiling single “Oblivion” the top song of this decade thus far, no small honor from a site with which she’s had a shaky relationship. But Visions also locked Grimes into an ethereal, electropop cage. “Go”, a 2014 flirtation with starker forms of her source genres of dance and pop, was met with a ferocious backlash. Grimes had, for a vocal faction of followers, sold out (whatever that means nowadays). They promptly shouted, “Judas!”

Grimes responds with a roar on her incredible new album Art Angels. And Boucher, here a monomaniacal mastermind, finally makes good on her early fantasies of total artistic domination. She’s crafted a glorious pop monster entirely by her own mind, hand, and voice. Part dazzling confection, part snarling beast, Art Angels is a stitched together, hook ridden masterwork. Boucher plays the dual roles of Dr. Frankenstein and Mr. Hyde. She makes the impossible — tunes that are fun and frightening — come to life through sheer ingenuity and a bolt of creative lightening. Then she sets her id loose to wreak havoc on pop conventions in general, and her haters in particular. Both are reduced to a pile of ribbons. The listener, on the other hand, is simultaneously plucked into pop nirvana and plopped into hell’s loudest dance party.

Claire Boucher taught herself to execute every note you hear on Art Angels. That’s her on violin, drums, guitar, piano, ukulele. She also mastered the technical aspects of recording and production. This is a DIY album of the highest order, one that sounds like it’s been churned out by a factory of specialists. Its songcraft is even better. Boucher’s melodic talent has never been so ebullient and noisy, her lyrical knack never so keen and devastating. Focus on any facet of Art Angels and you’ll be impressed by its technique. But this is wholly the work of a generalist (and, in most cases, a gifted amateur). When you pull back, the full gem leaves you awestruck.

Always the nerd, Grimes (probably unintentionally) sequences Art Angels’ 14 songs like the original Star Trek film series: The even-numbered tracks are the best of the bunch. “California”, with its nods to “Cotton Eye Joe” and “Pon de Replay”, is a joyous middle-finger flip at Pitchfork. Lead single “Flesh Without Blood,” maybe Grimes’ finest achievement, sinks its fangs into fair-weather fans, while the brutal “Kill V. Maim”, which stacks cheerleader chants atop a soaring singalong, takes aim at the record industry. “Easily”, a mid-tempo standout, is an exhibition of heavenly vocals and pattering beats. The wonderful “REALiTi”, a holdover from an earlier project, which she released as a demo earlier this year, gleams with a second polish. Sister-in-arms Janelle Monáe trades verses with Grimes on “Venus Fly”, a muscular feminist banger. And “Butterfly”, which is at once elephantine and wispy, closes the album with a jaunty bit of elevator music.

Art Angels’ odd-numbered tracks are, naturally, odder still. They range from an otherworldly incantation (“Laughing and Not Being Normal”) to a strumming statement of purpose (“Belly of the Beat”), from a phenomenal ode to Montreal (“Artangels”) to a sighing Shakespearean kiss off (“Pin”), from a fierce songbook sequel (“World Princess, Pt. II”) to a gentle acoustic interlude (“Life in the Vivid Dream”). The strangest song of all is a delirious horror show called “SCREAM”, sung entirely in Mandarin by the Taiwanese artist Aristophanes. Grimes for once takes the backseat and allows the crazy to flow from a different source. It’s a remarkable stunt that also speaks to her generosity and daring.

On “Flesh Without Blood”, Grimes lampoons those who accused her of courting fortune and fame. The accusation was always preposterous, and Art Angels makes the claim seem even more laughable. Yes, this is in the loosest sense a pop album with enough ideas and melodies to fill a handful of lesser records. But no one would ever confuse it for 1989. Instead, Art Angels is the maximalist brainchild of a prodigious talent. It’s hugely entertaining. It’s delightfully bizarre. It’s refreshingly caustic. If anything, we’d be lucky if this, and not the forthcoming behemoth of booming balladry, were a guaranteed worldwide blockbuster. I’d happily give Claire Boucher all the money and celebrity her naysayers fear she’s seeking, whether she wants it or not. A