Wednesday, November 11, 2015

album review: 'art angels' by grimes

You ever encounter one of those artists that seems to operate so much on their own wavelength that it's difficult to get a clear inroad to how to perceive or understand their art? As a critic, these are always some of the most frustrating acts to discuss - and for the longest time, Canadian electronic artist Grimes seemed to fall into that lane for me. 

Now I've been aware of her existence for years now - I first heard fragments of her music in university when I was going through my darkwave phase, and I've made several attempts over the past five years to try and untangle her artistic persona. On the surface, it might be easy to slot her into the spacious, airy side of dream pop with sparse beats and lots of dark misty atmosphere, somewhere between Enya with a splash of the more eclectic electronic percussion that some have compared to Bjork. But Grimes was more lo-fi and ragged in her presentation, the sort of Garageband-produced material that seemed so fresh online in the late 2000s before everyone started doing it, and the half-heard nature of her vocals and lyrics made things even tougher. I still find her debut record Geidi Primes perversely fascinating, mostly because the deeper reference points to Dune feel simultaneously incomprehensible and yet perfect all the same, the sort of deeply eccentric passion project that you can tell she had zero expectations would catch on. And I'm still trying to make heads or tails out of Halfaxa, which felt less esoteric and alien than her debut but no less impenetrable. I could sketch out reference points to the weirder edges of synthpop, electronica, and indie R&B, but Grimes seemed to exist in her own universe and my grip on it felt tenuous at best. I mean, I liked it, but I had the feeling if I understood it more, I'd like it that much more.

So did things get better with Visions, the first album she released under indie label 4AD? Well, while it might have cleared away some of the lo-fi blur to focus more on the distinctive ghostly electronic scratch paired with more textured percussion, but it seemed like some of the sense of alien mystique was missing. I'm not going to deny that Grimes could handle electro-pop, but the atmosphere wasn't quite as potent. Don't get me wrong, the mid-section of that record comes close to recapturing that feel, but it couldn't help but feel a little individuality had been lost - especially considering that it didn't translate into more of her work being comprehensible! So when I heard things had been cleaned up even more for her newest release after she had scrapped an album that was too dark and negative, I was curious to see where she'd take Art Angels - what did we find?

Well, I can say this: for the first time, I think I can understand this record and its themes, where Grimes was looking to take Art Angels as a reclaiming statement to reclaim and redefine herself and her artistic identity, wholeheartedly pulling from a grabbag of influences to create a garish, fluorescent record - and man, I wish I liked it a lot more. Now keep in mind this is easily Grimes' most accessible record and it's probably the one I will return to the most, and as a whole there's no one problem that really hurts it. For me as much as I like and agree with the thematic progression and the defiant choice to embrace pop that many have deemed as disposable, it's not quite sticking with me because of a slew of minor quibbles that just rub me the wrong way. Don't get me wrong, if you're able to overlook them you'll find a lot to really love about this record... I'm just not at that point.

So let's start with Grimes herself, and I'll give her this, she's one hell of an expressive vocal presence on this record. From the ghostly tones from where she started to a brattier side that sounds like a k-pop star breaking form to a more plastic baby-voiced coo where every crack is plainly visible. And that's before Grimes amps up the more raw, visceral side of her persona that feels drawn from a particularly psychotic hentai nightmare, which comes most to the forefront on 'SCREAM' which features the demented Taiwanese rapping of Aristophanes and Grimes howling her lungs out - which, for the record, I really liked. Now I'll be the first to admit that while I like her more ethereal, Enya-esque vocals the most, the contrasting darker moments really worked for me... almost enough to make up for the fact that the hyper-girlish, cheerleader-esque vocals really didn't. It doesn't help matters that Grimes never feels content to use one consistent vocal tone in a song, and nearly every time she shifts it feels jarring.

And you could say that about a lot of the instrumentation too, which takes the pop structures that were defined on previous records, clears away the rest of the fog, and splashes them in technicolor paint. The most obvious point of reference is late 90s dance-pop - the garish synths, the acoustic guitar fragments, the gummy grooves, and the beats that were often far better than they have any right to be, the hallmarks of acts like Britney Spears and Kylie Minogue and Robyn and especially Madonna and Aqua. And Grimes gets why so much of this music sticks, because for as thunderous as some of these beats can get, a lot of the melodies are really quite strong - I might not love 'California' for its blocky synths, but they carry a good melody and paired with a sample of 'Pon De Replay' by Rihanna, the song gains a ton of momentum. And that added colour also factors into the instrumental choice: Grimes learned guitar and violin for this record, and the moments where they come in to drive the groove or take the melody are some of the best on this album, mostly because Grimes' isn't afraid to let her guitar lines get nastier or freakier. Take 'Belly Of The Beat', which operates on a Metric-esque acoustic rollick with hints of piano, but you can hear that electric sizzle in the background to add that menace. And really, the guitars are some of this record's best features: the ridiculously catchy progression on 'Flesh Without Blood', the roaring groove of 'Kill V. Maim', the warping rhythms of 'Pin' that only seem to pile up and get more brutish to the hollowed flutter of 'Butterfly'. And that's before we get moments like the strings on the opener 'laughing and not being normal' or the gorgeous interlude on 'Venus Fly', which might contain one of the most pummeling and thunderous beats on this record. Of course, there are choices in tone and production that I do question: the synth breakdown on 'Easily', the vaporwave-esque tones on 'World Princess Pt. II', and the fact that all of these tracks feel really overstuffed and front-heavy - for as much as Grimes lets the wispier elements drift and have atmosphere, the noisy percussion and loads of squealing vocals and synth can make this record an exhausting listen. It could have used slightly longer moments to breathe, like 'Life In The Vivid Dream' which really should have been a whole song, I wanted to see it expand!

But hey, I can see the callbacks that Grimes was trying to make, and this takes us to lyrics and themes... most of which can be interpreted as a giant middle finger to those who would seek to define, restrict or 'help' her under nefarious motives. Hell, when your second song is a self-described 'hate song' against Pitchfork trying to 'commodify the pain', you're not exactly being subtle. And she includes the audience in that picture, which would normally be risky if she wasn't acutely aware of the feedback relationship she was the listener and how her own actions have been perceived. A lot of the songs highlight the process - one of the reasons I really like 'SCREAM' is how it describes in great poetic detail the excruciating process of wrenching pain out of one's body for the sake of the art, and I like how she stakes her own personal claim in her sound, not be claimed or appropriated by hanger-ons or men who would condescend to her. And I really like the subversion of taking tropes and sounds of the hyper-optimistic late 90s dancepop scene and showing the underlying, seething darkness, willful escapism at best and nightmarish voyeurism at worst. But here's the thing: for as much as I will praise the feminist themes and rhetoric of this album, by co-opting the shallowness of late 90s dance pop some of it seeps into the writing and I find myself searching for nuance that isn't always reflected. Take 'Kill V. Maim', which Grimes has described as being written from the perspective of Michael Corleone from The Godfather Pt. 2... except that he's a vampire who can change gender and travel through time. So ignoring that bit of weirdness that doesn't really factor in, I appreciated how this song tried to dig into gangsta hypermasculinity and how Corleone broke the system when started the war - I see why Grimes was attracted to the topic. But considering that was the film that pushed Michael the hardest in terms of his family relationships and how it tied into masculinity, the song feels undercooked and thin, more concerned with the iconography than the deeper meaning. And sure, you get that in pop - even in the last two songs focusing on environmentalist themes and how Grimes has finally found transcendence in her own world - sanctuary through isolation from reality? I see the appeal, especially when reclaiming one's artistic identity, but it feels cheapened as like with Tyler The Creator's Cherry Bomb you're taking your ball and just leaving instead of engaging deeper. Hell, the most thought-provoking lyric on this album doesn't even come from Grimes but from Janelle Monae on the excellent 'Venus Fly': 'Why you always call it black?' The question of that qualifier, whether it's valid or good or even wanted on Janelle Monae's art is a huge one, the sort of question you can build an entire album on, and on a song focused on being 'too scary to be objectified', that's the sort of powerful artistic statement that really stands out. I just wish the album hit more of those raw, potent moments, it could have resonated so much more with me.

So yeah, in short I really did like Art Angels by Grimes - it's bold, colourful, kind of a mess but in the best way possible, and on occasion it hits some fantastic notes. The problem is that it's also garish, cluttered, a little overcooked musically and undercooked lyrically. But hey, you expect that with pop music, and it does mean i'm giving this record an extremely strong 7/10. Again, if some of my aesthetic quibbles don't bother you as much, you'll probably love this record. If you're a Grimes fan alienated by the pivot towards more accessible influences, I still recommend you give this a chance. I didn't have an inroad to Grimes' art before, and the fact she created one through dancepop really is something special.

1 comment:

  1. "It's also garish, cluttered, a little overcooked musically and undercooked lyrically. But hey, you expect that with pop music"

    Because pop music, as good as it tries to be, will never be perfect. Other genres can, but not pop music, because it's pop music.