While most pop stars today are backed by a team of songwriters and producers plugging away at algorithms to craft songs that trigger our pleasure centers, Grimes (Claire Boucher) is one of the rare pop artists producing all of her own meticulously arranged music, writing her own substantial lyrics, and applying both of these aspects to craft infectious songs . She may not be dominating Top 40 airwaves yet, but songs from her newest release, Art Angels, certainly have all the elements to compete with mainstream pop heavyweights while taking risks to push the form to new heights.
Where 2012’s brilliant, critically acclaimed Visions kept to a darker, colder, industrial aesthetic, Art Angels actively moves toward a more accessible pop sound. As her first record since signing with Jay-Z’s label, Roc Nation, Grimes is at her most streamlined, yet makes no compromises, maintaining the quirks that makes her music so unique.*
Her vocals continue to be stellar, and they are presented here with more clarity and force than ever before. She has the range to hit Mariah Carey-esque high notes and the dynamics to then go down to throaty croons. It’s the little idiosyncratic inflections in her delivery - the yelps, squeals, and warbles - that really bring out the character in her performances. Grimes also seems to have found a penchant for all-out primal screams, showcased most prominently in the aptly titled track “SCREAM.” **
The production remains unified in the milieu of electronic music, but Grimes’ incorporation of real instrumentation - most noticeably the guitar - is a departure from previous works. Whether strumming progressions, laying down funky licks, or hammering out distorted riffs, Grimes incorporates the guitar skillfully into the intoxicating layering of beats, synths, and vocals that continue to be the driving force in her production.
Grimes’ fastidiousness and skill as a producer makes her among the best currently creating music, rewarding repeat listens with multiple layers and variations on themes that might have been missed the first time around. Within one song, instrumentation voicing is subtly interchanged and beats get slightly skewed, adding extra color and texture without being distracting.
Lyrically, Grimes draws from new-found alter-egos - her titular “art angels” - to represent views that she’s stated she couldn’t express before. Much of this expression can be interpreted as well-tread pop fodder - brushing off haters, love songs - but it’s couched in mysterious or strange imagery that leaves songs open to interpretation. Her astral projection into other consciousnesses also leaves it open as to whom she is referring to in songs. When she says “I”, is it about really herself or an angel? When she says “you,” is it a third party, or an angel referring to her actual self?*** Grimes is active on social media and will sometimes comment what she feels the songs are about.
All of these elements - technically complex production, memorable vocal melodies, and cerebral lyrics - crystalize into a fantastic pop album with an avant garde edge and no filler. Art Angels is an achievement that crowns Grimes as arguably the best autonomous pop auteur working today.
Check it out!
* Grimes certainly hasn’t compromised on her - let’s say, "distinct" - sense of fashion and style either. See video below:
** “SCREAM” is nuts. Set to a mono-chordal electric guitar riff and a marching-band-drumline beat, Grimes lets Taiwanese rapper, Aristophanes, take over and rap gleefully and malevolently in Mandarin Chinese. Grimes comes in to cap each verse with brutal, throat-shredding screams.
***One thing’s certain though: she inhabits the mindspace of a space-faring, gender-swapping, vampire Al Pacino from Godfather II on the song “Kill V. Maim.” What.