Art Angels is what a pop album would sounds like if you took the top 10 chart and deliberately swapped everything for unexpected patterns and instruments.
Sometimes popular music is so meta it folds in on itself. Think about The Darkness, who give the impression that they are the Spinal Tap of our generation — a comedy act. Their songs are so extraordinarily cheesy that one cannot imagine that they might be serious. But those teeth are real, aren’t they? And that video had a budget and someone wrote and directed it — and the interviews they do seem too aloof. Could they serious? Die Antwoord is another example; they show such an extraordinary commitment to the joke that one is forced to wonder if South African pop culture is as bizarre as they’d seem to indicate. Maybe they’re serious too. And then there’s Grimes, the flitting, dancing, fashionably odd Canadian named Claire Boucher. She’s an artist who seemed, for most of her early career, to want us to believe she’s only ironically pop, a pop-mockery. And then she produced one of the best and most unapologetically hyper-pop albums of 2015, Art Angels.
“Laughing and Not Being Normal”, the opening track, was set in place for the reviewers. This is where we’re supposed to say she’s clearly matured as an artist. There are strings here and lots of complex arrangement. It’s a throwaway track but it’s clearly not the stuff of a laptop audio workstation in a dorm room. This is mature, musician-like behavior. It’s just under two minutes of pixie-dust, piano and dramatic pap which seems to be taking us somewhere but then doesn’t. Thankfully, “California” happens in spite of it — and how encouraging it is. This is where the album really begins.
Art Angels is what a pop album would sounds like if you took the top 10 chart and asked someone to deliberately swap everything for unexpected patterns and instruments. There are bass drums where you least expect them, snares beating off hi-hats and synths, claps abound in a delightful jump-up parade and the majority feels like a North American spin on J-pop. But then “Scream” happens… and it isn’t.
“Scream” is all over the place. And who is this rapper rapping in Taiwanese? (Aristophanes, as it turns out.) This track is hard hitting, referred to by a blog called Highsnobiety as “Neo-Nu Metal”. Never mind the fact that Neo and Nu have the same meaning in this context; we’ll agree that she’s doubling down on the metal guitar samples for this track. And then she isn’t.
“Flesh Without Blood” is magnificent. It’s a pounding, bubbly, floor-filler. It does for 2015 what Chvrches’ “We Sink” did for 2013. It provides a kind of melancholy hook backed by everything from drum n’ bass patterns to a more standard dance music bassline. There’s jangly New Order-esque guitar lines, syncopated claps, dancing, drinking and someone’s playing Twister in the corner. This track is an indie dance music festival packed into a few glorious minutes, and as the pitched up echos of Grimes’ voice sing “Baby believe me,” you’re too tired from doing the running man (ironically, of course) to respond, “I do, I do, I DO.”
The hit-and-miss goes on for the rest of the record but keeps the misses in the minority. There’s absolutely nothing in the way of continuity. Aside from recognizing a common tempo, frequent appearance of guitar samples and boom-bip drumming, there’s little here that would constitute a measure of the present state of Grimes’ sound. It’s not stable. This could easily be a b-sides record or a collection of her greatest hits spanning the the past few years.
On “Kill V. Maim,” Boucher starts to show an almost unsettling dark side. While the video for “Flesh Without Blood” has her spinning around in a period piece wig and gown with the lower half of her face covered in blood, the happy vibe of the song just makes it sort of distracting. It’s on “Kill V. Maim” where she gets a little freaky. The 80s-style production is up there with the best of Depeche Mode’s work while her vocals are delivered with the sort of angry, schizophrenic hip-hop sensibility that would give Iggy Azalea nightmares.
So many things can go badly with the sort of syrupy-sweet cadence Claire Boucher is working with, but none do. She seems to know herself well on “Easily.” She slows things down just enough to sing the melody with strength, then goes in the entirely opposite direction and sings “Pin” which sounds like a vapid love song built out of killer robot parts.
While Grimes’ previous work dabbled in avant-garde electronica and pop vocals seemed to serve only as a plaything with which to mock her contemporaries, Art Angels has her not only embracing a wide range of pop styles but absolutely excelling at it. Art Angels feels odd on first listen, but it slowly becomes a stylistic pinball machine of a record — one which racks up a high score very, very fast.