After a long wait, “Art Angels” proves that Grimes can make horror danceable.
It’s been three years since Grimes, the alter ego of Canadian artist Claire Boucher, released the much-lauded “Visions”; a span of time so long, she had an entire other album’s worth of material she simply scrapped. “Art Angels” is the phoenix rising from the ashes of what that scrapped album could have been.
“Visions” is a beautiful collection of goth-pop meant to lull you to sleep while contemplating whether neuroscience really is your passion, or if you’d rather say “screw it” and start a cyberpunk commune — which is basically what Boucher did in real life. It’s supposed to be danceable in theory, meaning the beats and hooks are catchy, but the overall tone of the album makes you feel like hiding rather than partying.
Starting with the short but powerful “laughing and not being normal,” this song gives Grimes the opportunity to tell listeners that she’s still weird and dark, but in a different way. She ditches the synthesizer and drum pad from her dark wave roots for classical string instruments playing a somber melody, before the music fades out to an electronic warble in the last ten seconds.
“California” might be the best song concept on this album, solely because it’s a jab at catchy-but-empty wanderlust songs by simply being a catchy and empty wanderlust song. Starting with a cliché indie guitar strum and upbeat drums, it’s clear she’s mocking artists who fall back on the whole “California sunshine” trope. The rest of the song continues the same way, with the bridge announcing, “when the ocean rises up above the ground, maybe I’ll drown in California.” She doesn’t sing this with venom, though, keeping a stereotypically upbeat “boho” voice throughout, mocking artists who take up simple songs written by someone else for cash rather than coming up with something original for themselves. This song lives for the irony of its own unoriginality, which is exactly why it’s fantastic.
Since “Visions,” Grimes has been rising almost exponentially on her way to pop stardom, despite being the uber-weird hipster that she is. “Flesh without Blood” is possibly a jab at the record companies and agents that made her produce unsuccessful singles like “Go.” Their meddling was a contributing factor in ditching the unnamed 2014 album. Some notable lines from the song include: “After all, I just don’t like you, it’s nice how you say you like me — but only conditionally,” “If you don’t leave me, just let me go,” “You want money, you want fame,” et cetera. With these lyrics and Grimes’ statements on Twitter that this is not a romantic song, it seems like it is directed at the bigwig producers that made her, and themselves, rich by corrupting her art.
A good example of who Grimes really is can be found in “Kill V. Maim,” which is exactly what you’d expect from a pop star obsessed with death. Grimes’s high voice squeaks and sing-songs throughout this entire piece, lapsing into outright screaming at certain points. It’s a great song to work out to, not just because of the extremely catchy, high-octave electropop, but because of lyrics like “B-E-H-A-V-E never more, you gave up being good when you declared a state of war.” Her cutesy but violent demeanor in this song exemplifies who she’s become since “Visions,” more than meh-level singles like “Go” or “REALiTi” ever could.
Grimes is optimistic and light in the sweet-sounding “Butterfly,” but lets loose ungodly shrieks super-imposed over Mandarin rap in “SCREAM ft. Aristophanes.” In essence, she’s doing exactly what she feels like doing because she’s achieved a level of power in the industry she didn’t have before. But she certainly has not abused it.
Overall, “Art Angels” is a solid effort that was well worth the wait. This album shows that Grimes, a niche artist, can become a dance-pop queen without sacrificing what made her popular in the first place. Her attitude toward her old dark wave albums may have changed — and she’s certainly grown tired of her former producers’ pre-written songs — but that doesn’t mean she’s stepping into the light entirely. The fact that she’s able to make surrealist terror something you can dance to says something about her tremendous talent and especially about the worth of “Art Angels.”