Grimes has always been a bit of a mystery. The art-pop queen, whose real name is Claire Boucher, released her first two albums within the space of a year under the Montreal-based Arbutus record label, and though they both showed flashes of what was to come, Grimes was still more well-known for her Tumblr than for her music (not that her blog isn’t fascinating—part of participating in Grimes fandom entails keeping up with her personal life and unapologetically-feminist aesthetic). Then, in 2012, she released “Visions,” an album that totally encapsulated all that Grimes had been trying to do—make weird pop songs with depth. Her feminism and DIY spirit (Boucher composes and performs every song on her albums), while not all that define her, imbued these songs with a fiery passion and a trembling vulnerability which made “Visions” one of the best albums of the year.
Grimes has never been shy about speaking about her love of pop music—one of her most memorable blog posts declared: “im tired of being considered vapid for liking pop music or caring about fashion as if these things inherently lack substance or as if the things i enjoy somehow make me a lesser person.” Indeed, people are quick to equate “pop” with “shallow” or “bad,” and while there’s something to be said about the dilution of one’s personal values in order to create a work of art that’s better suited for mass consumption, Grimes pushes back against the categorical denunciation of pop music.
Which brings us to her newest album, “Art Angels.” “Art Angels” is art-pop at its finest, a pastiche of musical eras and levels of “artistry” given a greater depth by Grimes’ sharply incisive lyrics. The album continually throws the listener off guard, while still maintaining a distinctive thread of insanely catchy beats and ‘90s pop-guitar. The first two tracks wouldn’t sound out of place during a Katy Perry or Miley Cyrus session, especially the fairly traditional “California” (though, again, I doubt either of those aforementioned would sing “California / You only like me when you think I’m looking sad / California / I didn’t think you’d end up treating me so bad.”) Out of nowhere comes “SCREAM,” featuring Taipei-based rapper Aristophanes rapping in Mandarin over screams, snarls and that K-pop guitar that Grimes loves so much.
That’s how this album works. Grimes will hit you with a couple of fairly standard-sounding pop songs that get taken to another level by her skill as a lyricist, and then she’ll drop a bizarrely catchy tune that recedes as quickly as it had come. “Kill V. Maim,” the gem of the album, features Grimes exhorting her listeners “don’t behave,” and ironically singing that “I’m only a man / Do what I can.” Her faux-cheerleading and gung-ho masculinity serve as ironic commentary on the conventions of both, a difficult balancing act that Grimes pulls off with ease.
Other highlights include the vaguely M83-ish “Pin” and “Venus Fly,” featuring Janelle Monae. “REALiti” has gotten a lot of hype due to its music video, but it’s actually one of the more ponderous tracks on the album, even disregarding the length (a tick over five minutes). Though fans of “Visions” might lament the more mainstream sound of “Art Angels,” they’d be wise to trust that if anybody is going to lead the charge to make pop weird, it’s Grimes.
Bernstein is a member of the class of 2018.