Art Angels | Grimes

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Art Angels | Grimes

Ian Wendrow

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Yes, Claire Boucher is a quirky individual. And yes, this has definitely influenced how abstract her particular brand of pop, under the moniker of Grimes, sounds. Up until the release of her latest record Art Angels, it was easy to label her music as “witch-house,” putting her in the company of acts like Zola Jesus, Purity Ring and Crystal Castles.

It is somewhat surprising then how quickly Boucher has turned towards a more art-pop oriented sound on her new record. Art Angels is without a doubt Grimes’ most accessible record to date, as evidenced by the first full song “California” with its handclap-centric beat and cheery guitar line. This is still Grimes we’re dealing with, so naturally the album opens with a quirky intro song titled “laughing and not being normal,” which features orchestral like violins and piano that crescendos into a sustained falsetto before eerily fading out.

What’s immediately noticeable about Art Angels is how much more prevalent Boucher’s vocals are. Grimes has always used her voice more as another instrument with her past works, keeping it lower in the mix and floating around in the background, the focus squarely kept on the unconventional instrumentals.

On here, the lyrics and vocals carry much more of the album, which depending on your preferences can be a positive or negative change. In fact, it’s this jarring tonal shift from her past works that makes Art Angels a challenging record to review. Is it fair to judge it based on the albums that came before it? They all are recognizably Grimes, but so much has changed on this album from the production to the beat composition to Boucher’s confident singing that it’s almost pointless to compare it sonically to say Visions or Geidi Primes.

Yet Art Angels feels like it’s trying to straddle the line between Grimes’ older sound and the radio friendly pop she’s trying to emulate. Sometimes this works, especially on the tail end of the album with “World Princess part II” or the Janelle Monáe featured “Venus Flytrap.” Both songs amply demonstrate Boucher’s ability to mash together Top 40 pop songwriting tropes with eclectic vocal arrangements and out-there rhythm lines. They’re undeniably catchy but are just weird enough to distinguish themselves from the ever-growing mass of female fronted solo pop outfits.

As much as I’d like to hear more of these songs, Art Angels instead bounces around between safer pop songs like her two big singles “Realiti” and “Flesh Without Blood” or totally strange tracks like “SCREAM,” which features Taiwanese lyrics and cheesy (not even the good kind of cheesy) snarls. The album as a whole is horrendously schizophrenic, which comes in part from Boucher’s struggle between those, like myself, who pine for her older sound and Boucher’s own desire to experiment and move closer towards traditional pop.

“California,” in its main chorus hook, accuses her fans that “You only like me when you think I’m looking sad.” It’s clear that Grimes wants to break out from an imposed genre such as “witch-house” that restricts her sound to a minimalist, somber tone. The unfortunate irony is that Art Angels is at its best when it mixes the gothic elements of her older work within an upbeat, pop flavored template.

Closing track “Butterfly,” one of the better songs on offer, closes out the album with the line “If you’re looking for your dream girl, I’ll never be your dream girl.” Fair enough, but if Grimes is committed to moving away from her previous outings then she needs to fully embrace that and release more tracks like “Flesh Without Blood” instead of “Venus Flytrap.”

Art Angels tries to have it both ways, it wants to draw upon Boucher’s prior albums and at the same time completely ignore them so Grimes can become a full on pop artist. It simply doesn’t work, it leads to a confusing mess of an album and no amount of personal quirkiness is going to change that. There are standout tracks to be found on Art Angels but as a complete album it stumbles on its ambition.

Art Angels was digitally released on November 6, 2015 via 4AD