Look, pop music is bloody great right now and everybody knows it. Ryan Adams knows it, which is why earlier this year he covered Taylor Swift’s magnum opus, the pop monolith 1989 in its entirety. The UK electronic underground knows it, which is why a collective like PC Music can use the conventions of manufactured modern pop to hold up a black mirror to our technology dependent existence, while also working with huge acts such as Charli XCX. And above all, Grimes knows it, which is why her unabashed love for Beyonce, K-pop and its ilk, has helped to make ‘Arts Angels’ one of the most electrifying and relevant releases of the year.
Grimes is, and only is, Claire Boucher. Unlike a bigger solo performer like Taylor Swift, whose music is the result of a small army of collaborators (not that there’s anything inherently wrong with this way of making music), Grimes is doing everything herself here: writing, recording, producing and mastering. She follows the development of every song, from its initial inception right up to what you hear coming out of your speakers. Not only does it give the record an unmistakable identity, but it sounds amazing as well. Where Visions was shrouded in a partially obscured, nocturnal and neon-lit atmosphere, everything on Art Angels is in crystal clear Hi-Definition, it’s like taking out a VHS tape and putting in a Blu-ray. The production is flawless to a point; it pops out of your earphones. Everything is packed to the brim with effects and noises, but is all given its own space so as never to feel messy or cluttered. Honestly, the whole thing is up to the standard of any million-dollar studio album, despite the fact Grimes put the whole thing together in her bedroom in L.A. over the space of a year.
There’s a broadening of palette as well, including strings and a surprisingly large amount of guitar, like on almost every track, it’s the most prominent instrument. Something unexpected for an artist so interested in the synthetic sounds you hear in contemporary chart music. But the guitars are rarely used how you would expect them to be and have a weird, inhuman quality to them. Like looped up samples from a Garageband rather than being played by a living, breathing person. ‘California’ has a country rock guitar rhythm, but mixed up with compressed electronic drums. Likewise ‘Scream’ is held together by a surf rock riff, but also has Taiwanese rapping and Yeezus era, Kanye style, panting and booming low end.
There’s no sense of Grimes simply cherry picking whatever is currently on trend, there’s some genuinely naff sounds and influences that are appropriated. References to early 00’s pop abound, and on ‘Flesh without Blood’ there’s even a bit of Enya style vocals. Nothing is too sacred or too lowbrow for Grimes, everything can be absorbed into her sound. A bit like the collage effect of a Tumblr board, all of these weird influences can be pasted together, with something emerging that doesn’t sound anything like the sum of its parts.
Even though it’s been three years since Visions, thanks to Boucher’s constant presence in the online music media cycle, it feels like she never really went away. Grimes spends a lot of the record battling her own public persona and how what she says is in erroneously interpreted or manipulated (a pretty sad inevitability for an outspoken and opinionated young woman such as Boucher). On Art Angels, she’s finally able to respond entirely on her own terms. On ‘Easily’ when she sweetly croons “Easily, I’m the sweetest damn thing you ever saw / Easily, suddenly you don’t know me at all / Easily, three years later and now you want to call” it could be addressing an old lover, but could really be taking aim at those who’ve tried to publicly define her outside of her own sense of self. Whether its questioning her veganism or for being accused of selling out, something brought up directly on ‘Flesh without Blood’. Mimicking the voice of her detractors she sings: “Your voice it had the perfect flow/ it got lost when you gave it up though/cause you want money, you want fame”. It would all sound a bit paranoid and self-obsessed, if it wasn’t so depressingly true.
It is a feminist record, but only in the sense a woman creating music this challenging, but also this popular, in a genre that usually side lines the agency of women is inherently feminist. On songs such as ‘Kill V. Maim’, her pitched up voice has the hyper-real, cutesy femininity of J-Pop, pushed to such an extreme degree, its becomes uncanny and almost unnerving in its infantilising. Then suddenly she bursts into piercingly screeching “They don’t know me!”. She’s almost luring you in, playing up to how women are often perceived within pop as passive instruments for producers and record labels, and then proceeds to bite your head off.
Louis Ormesher