Sunday, November 8, 2015

Art Angels | Grimes

Visions was a blessing and a curse for Grimes. The record was composed entirely in GarageBand and carried itself as a set of 13 jagged-edged demos; it was just strange enough for critics to latch onto, but just digestible enough for mainstream audiences to divulge in. With nearly universal acclaim, the album has become the golden standard for what hipsters proclaim as "quality pop music" and what Top 40 dwellers call "strange pop music." So when our little synthpop mastermind took it upon herself to add a lick of mainstream pop sensibility to her new material that meets halfway between the oddity of Visions and the flamboyance of her 2013 single "Go," she inadvertently divided the masses once again.

Her fourth studio album, Art Angels, is a fleshed-out record that required some work on Grimes' part. Producing the entire album single-handedly, she taught herself how to play the violin, guitar, and piano to layer an organic energy with her synthpop bases. Ninety-five percent of the time, this works in her favor. She nearly abandons synthpop altogether for her new found acoustic abilities on intro track "laughing and not being normal," opening the album with an overture fit for a fantasy video game, not an outlandish synthpop album. Exemplified in ideal Grimes settings, electric guitar riffs are prominent features that spice up "Pin" and "Flesh without Blood," both of which are already kicked to life by hyperactive drums and topped off with some of Grimes' clearest lyrics to date. On the other hand, while I hate to make such a scathing comparison, "Easily," with its simplistic piano backdrop and wispy, droning vocals, could pass as an early Sky Ferreira demo; luckily, this is the album's only clear downfall.

Although not a mainstream pop album by any stretch of the imagination, the intentions and the undertones are there; whereas Visions was haphazardly pieced together under the haze of intentionally-induced hallucinations, Art Angels has a clear club mission in mind while retaining substance. Her affinity for supercharged pop music is uncovered by just one listen to "California," a reimagination of Rihanna's "Pon de Replay" that shoots bullets towards Pitchfork, or "Art Angels," which wouldn't be out of place on the soundtrack to an obscure early 2000s teen comedy movie. The title track really embodies a set of its own lyrics -- "I don’t need your medicine / Gonna dance all night / I’m high on adrenaline" -- but then again, so does most of the record. Its closing track, "Butterfly," is the brightest star of the bubbly bunch, waving in between low grooves and a euphoric chorus.

Again, it must be emphasized that the signature Grimes eccentricity hasn't gone anywhere. For example, she may be the only pop artist on the market who can craft a two-minute track of screams and Taiwanese rapping (courtesy of featured artist Aristophanes) and make it sound like an urgent movie score. (She also invites unlikely candidate Janelle Monáe in for the fun on "Venus Fly," where her shouted vocals are sandwiched between rolling bass and skittering synth runs for an equally-great product.) The wild extravaganza that is "Kill V. Maim" bounces like a Japanese anime score (another quality that only she can pull off with precision), and the rehauled version of "REALiTi" shines just by being quintessential Grimes -- well, Grimes with a few shots of espresso, that is.

Art Angels is a turning point for Grimes' career. She has concreted her status as a spectacular, ever-evolving, all-in-one package of a vocalist, songwriter, instrumentalist, and producer -- spare the two featured guest vocalists, all of this is a one-woman show. While previously sufficient, her production is finally perfected, and we learn that she can, in fact, enunciate actual words now. (She left us on our own to decode whatever she was saying throughout Visions, which was nearly impossible, by the way. At least we can reasonably decipher the lyrics of Art Angels.) But the greatest news of all? Even in translation to her biggest sound to date, she has retained the idiosyncrasies that make her Grimes -- as if one look at the album's cover art alone hadn't already told you that.

Art Angels is available digitally now under 4AD Records. Vinyl and CD formats will be released December 11, 2015.

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