From her early live performances, where an ethereal voice pulled apart graceful melodies over simple looping synths and incessant drums, to 2010’s Halfaxa and her 2012 breakthrough Visions, to ‘REALiTi’, the throwaway which emerged to become one of 2015’s best songs, Grimes has consistently shown one of the strongest instincts in all of music. She also appears to be one of the industry’s hardest workers. She has previously sung of placing ‘the need to be the best before the need to rest’, and beyond spending long days in the studio mastering all facets of production, for Art Angels she learnt to play instruments including the violin, guitar, ukulele, keys, and drums, while ahead of its release she published her own artwork for thirteen of the album’s fourteen tracks.
But while effortless genius is decidedly out of fashion, it remains that concepts of artistry and hard work don’t always go together as easily as they might. And as Art Angels steadily approached, it was easy to feel the nagging worry that it would prove overburdened by expectation and the sheer weight of the effort which Grimes was evidently putting in to the project.
This worry also owed much to the narrative that had built up around the creation of the record, which is one that Grimes could scarcely control. When she made ‘Go’ freely available in the summer of 2014, with co-production from Blood Diamonds and a video co-directed with her brother Mac, everything about the presentation of the song indicated that this was a one-off, an interesting diversion in elaborating a piece of music originally intended for someone else. Instead, in an act of willful misinterpretation, many fans and news outlets regarded ‘Go’ as a startling new direction indicative of her future work. When this was later attached to Grimes’s much overstated decision to put aside an album’s worth of material, the impression was conveyed that she had ditched her new record in response to the reception of ‘Go’.
This came after Grimes had opted, sometime in 2013, to relocate to Squamish in British Columbia, to escape the intensity around Visions, to begin focusing on new music, but also because she had quickly tired of having to engage in professional studio environments where male producers refused to afford her the respect and the space in which to create. All of this – her battles with the industry, her changes of address, the sense of angst stirred up around ‘Go’, and the lingering uncertainty until Art Angels was announced in late October – posited a stop-start process over the last couple of years, surely too strained to provide us with much fun.
Happily Art Angels is Grimes’ most joyous and confident work to date, any doubts utterly dispelled by the swift one-two punch of ‘Laughing and Not Being Normal’ and ‘California’: ‘Laughing and Not Being Normal’ an overt nod to ‘Infinite ♥ Without Fulfillment’ from Visions, a fragmentary album opener indicating that she has lost none of her knack for otherworldly atmospheres and idiosyncratic structures; while ‘California’ shows a new dimension to her sound, with the vocals still airily layered, but foregrounded and perfectly legible within a verse-chorus form, while a sunny country twang is undercut by the bubbling and buzzing of electronics.
For some of us Visions already seemed like the epitome of avant-garde pop, both a distillation and a thorough reworking of the genre. But Art Angels has placed itself under no obligation to match or modify that particular achievement. And the conversation around Grimes and pop music at this point feels more than a little worn out. It has become the root of a binary and an increasingly arbitrary opposition, between those who would almost uncritically support or dismiss her work.
What is pop music anyway beyond a commitment to a certain brevity, an ardent appeal which embraces the moment, and perhaps the strategic placement of hooks? Across her four and a half records, Grimes has written only one song outside the realm of 1-5 minutes in length; Art Angels more than her previous albums eschews themes of love and heartbreak; and her music has always been packed with hooks, so that if the only issue is the regularity of their position within the structure of her songs, it is certainly true that Art Angels represents no more of a leap towards pop than Visions did with respect to Halfaxa. Visions features the floating, distended girl group harmonies of ‘Genesis’, and in ‘Oblivion’ a conventionally structured pop song that sounds upbeat until one realises the lyrics deal with violent assault. Dance tracks abound between ‘Oblivion’ and ‘Symphonia IX (My Wait Is U)’, before ‘Nightmusic’ emerges as a strange variation on Toni Basil’s ‘Mickey’.
To the extent that pop music can be equated with wide popularity, for artists like Björk and Joanna Newsom, this popularity is the means by which they secure ultimate creative control. And when Grimes cites some of her favourite pop acts, they range widely, from Mariah Carey, to Tool, to perhaps most of all Dolly Parton. Where Art Angels is more pop than her other records, it is only for the clarity of the lyrics and for the diversity of popular genres from which it draws.
‘California’ has a country twang, but ‘Scream’ is a full-blown Western, with cries and shrieks, grinding guitar, and the whistle and pop of percussion, all given a contemporary twist via the breathy poetry of the Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes: the first track Grimes has produced for another lead vocalist. This country and western vibe extends throughout Art Angels, an instance of a broader shift in mood which seems to pull away from urban centres towards wider vistas. Throbbing guitar also underpins ‘Flesh without Blood’, one of the album’s standouts, with skittering drums and claps emphasising the forceful yet wistful message of the song. And the guitar accompaniment continues on through ‘Belly of the Beat’, an ode to the peculiar power of music with a chorus that sticks.
‘Kill V. Maim’ – written, according to Grimes, ‘from the perspective of Al Pacino in The Godfather Pt II. Except he’s a vampire who can switch gender and travel through space’ – bounds ping-ponging out of the gate, and features a snarling vocal replete with twisting internal rhymes and cheerleading. ‘Easily’ is one of lushest pieces Grimes has composed, a smooth neo soul number which places her pristine singing voice inside a tropical rainforest. And ‘World Princess, Pt. II’ – a follow-up to ‘World ♡ Princess’ from Halfaxa, a grinding dirge for a lost friend – blends funk breakouts with pulsing techno, with the whispered lines ‘If I stare into the darkness, I won’t know where I am / I haven’t seen the daylight since I started giving in / My eyes are falling heavy, my feet are moving slow’, before the sounds fade into the late night.
Even the reworked ‘REALiTi’ succeeds where it appears on Art Angels. The fan-favourite status the song swiftly attained after its release in March may have impelled its inclusion on the CD and digital editions of the record, but for these Grimes took the brave step of altering the production and rearranging the vocal. This updated version of ‘REALiTi’ doesn’t have the same heady energy as the original, but rather than simplifying the track, the dull stomp of the drums shape it into something darker and denser, brooding and hypnotic.
Grimes has described ‘California’ as a ‘hate track for Pitchfork’ and other like-minded music blogs, and many of the songs on Art Angels operate on a sort of triadic level where – without taking her suggestion that she doesn’t write about love anymore too literally – they could at once concern her relationship with those in the media and among her fans who would constrict her means of expression, close friends, or other forms of romance. This is true of ‘California’, whose beaming disposition belies the discomfit; ‘Flesh without Blood’, which appears to centre on a disappointed friendship; the beautifully evocative ‘Pin’, with its shimmering punk pop; and ‘World Princess, Pt. II’, which Grimes has referred to as a ‘diss track about male producers’, as she plays a Chapter 8 Tatiana to their Eugene Onegin.
Grimes well understands that music which is imperfect, which builds tension, which remains in some sense inevitably and humanely unfulfilled, often proves the most memorable music of all. A piece from September in The New Yorker records her stating, ‘I like building expectations, and then stressing people out by explicitly not doing the thing’. But other songs on Art Angels, while continuing to surge and clatter through an array of musical parts, prove willing to be more direct with their words: the title track is a celebration of Montreal, the home of Grimes’s music, a tender and euphoric love song which looks back with a sense of optimism; while ‘Venus Fly’ has Grimes and Janelle Monáe snapping on anyone who dares cast an objectifying glance.
On the bridge to ‘California’ Grimes’s voice pulls back and becomes the centre of a wave, as she sings ‘And when the ocean rises up above the ground / Baby, I’ll drown’: one of the many passages on the record where submerged details, brief samples, and the murmurs of nature become portals of noise. ‘Life in the Vivid Dream’ opens with rain on a windowpane and far-off thunder, a sad song about the loss of hope. But it soon segues into ‘Butterfly’, which might be ‘Sweeter than a sugar cane’ – yet more than this it is an ebullient song which clasps on to life in all of its complexities. ‘There is harmony in everything’, Grimes repeats, and if she will never be your dream girl, it is only because she won’t be confined to you or your dreams: Art Angels demands that we are wide awake.