Though it’s only her fourth full-length album, third coherent one and second to reach a competitive slice of the public, Art Angels is hardly Grimes’ first brush with the critical hosanna. Her last outing, Visions, boasted a broader-than-before appeal, expanding her audience beyond its once cult-like parameters; so intensely so that the single “Oblivion” — an indigo, Eurythmics-spare reflection on sexual assault, at turns chilling and thought-provoking — earned Pitchfork’s nod as best song of the decade. Like her previous work, Visions felt averse to definition, more intent on suggestive effects than landing a cogent blow. All the praise seemed to reinforce the sometimes unfairly bandied accusation that the self-styled indie ethos pays little heed to catchiness, thrust or hooks—the founding tenets of modern pop music. After all, the vaguer the art, the easier it is for listeners to project their own feelings onto it, regardless of artist intentions. If Grimes’ music is anything, it’s “evocative.”
In the past, Grimes’ most arresting element, Claire Boucher’s voice, was typically filtered so deep into the uncanny valley that it could often leave listeners cold. Yet a celebrated (and polarizing) Tumblr post I came across shortly thereafter put a tantalizing chip in this over-easy theory. If one took Grimes’ take on “the greatest songs of all time” seriously, this down-to-earth, ambitious and funny millennial, who just so happened to be signed to and in many ways epitomized the 4AD label, wasn’t all that crazy about 4AD’s notoriously shadowy aesthetic after all. What emerged from this list was a revelation: Grimes loved pop with a capital P: Bey was her bae; Mariah Carey was inordinately important to her; and “I Knew You Were Trouble”, a Max Martin product, was to her mind beyond reproach. This was the outlook of an artist thrillingly untroubled by blurring the lines between art and pop that the 21st century has long served to strengthen.
Two years, an entire scrapped long-player and a compelling abundance of soul-searching later (detailed best in this magnificent New Yorker profile) and we’re given Art Angels: a disarming sucker punch of pop inclinations, replete with bejeweled brass knuckles. Above all, Art Angels is bursting with brilliant choruses, themselves ebullient climaxes to verses and bridges of equal melodic assurance and astounding writerly technique. Yet, for all its visceral payoffs, the beatific sound beaming out of the album isn’t exactly “pop.” Still, Art Angels‘ sound speaks to Boucher’s freshly unearthed pop affections, impulses that were likely stifled in the past by the weight of indie cred as much as anything else. To make her objective even starker, she’s already declared that her previous work was really just practice. And indeed, this is the first time her artistic confidence has sounded competitive; the singular sonic palette with which she paints her new meet-you-halfway melodies brings no obvious peers to mind.
That’s key here: Grimes is partisan to neither side of the commercial/uncommercial coin. She’s eccentric and proud of it, and as unconventional as a lot of popular music is becoming, the fun and surprise that accompanies eccentricity has been in slim supply of late. It’s obvious we’re living in a pop moment, in a century that’s evolved from a reflexive revulsion of the big-machine con of Britney and boy bands to a time when self-conscious intellectuals strain to elevate Taylor Swift and Jason Derulo to breathless aesthetic heights. Some of this is compensation for stuff like Pitchfork’s previous, unapologetic refusal to rate popular hip hop or Taylor Swift — i.e. a walk back of unwitting racism and sexism. But mostly it’s just the usual insecure in-crowd maneuvering. People who twenty years ago would be crowing about the triumph of grunge guitar over Reagan-era synthesizing are now salivating over “the end of analogue comforts,” as if today’s manifold computer worlds aren’t often the same brand of soft escapism. Yet as I see it, pop is ascendant because it uses, like hip-hop, a production style instrumentally dismissive of forms and limitations; the best pop can wrangle randomly sourced electronics into a flawless facsimile of life’s organic joys (see Swift’s 1989, which programmed a whole existential gamut from heartache to sex to despair to fun to longing to recovery).
Art Angels is much trickier though; its surrealist quirks might well wrinkle Swift’s nose; and yet its cadences and invigorating arrangements could also turn her eyes green. Which, against Grimes’ seemingly incongruous back catalogue, begs the question: is this the most unexpected march into genius in pop history? Sure, proponents of Grimes’ older work will disagree. But if like me you saw smoke and mirrors in her previous records, let’s be real here: how does a person who never wrote a memorable hook in her life suddenly pour forth with the sort of luxurious soul-pop erotica Mariah would kill for (case in point: “Easily”)? Where and how did she locate these melodies that seemed to elude her all decade? (Her addictive deliveries of “after all I just don’t like you” and “if you believe me… just – let – me – go” on “Flesh Without Blood” are just one example). There’s a chorus for the ages lurking in every corner of these songs. On Art Angels, Grimes is born again. This is the sound of a free soul, the kind millennials have spent the Obama age perfecting, shuffling off every lingering restriction and convention, and pushing hard against any that won’t crack.
Not that some personal sea change is Art Angels’ theme. Sure, it may strike some fans as strange that Grimes now sounds so chart-ready, but she knows as well as you do that Gaga and Nicki drew a dividing line between epochs for pop-as-compromise and pop-as-vehicle-for-the-uncompromising. Radioland jubilation may be expertly effected here, but it’s never conceded to; there’s still a lot of room for the bizarre in the belly of her irresistible beats. In a year when Justin Bieber, roughly two seconds out of his long-merited comeuppance, proved that a world-uniting genre still has nefarious uses, it’s high time for a willful weirdness infiltration. Now that critics have learned to love the conformist, or at least appreciate it, the next half of the 2010s is poised for some punk atavism, and it’d only be natural for the sonically unrestricted world of big-beat pop to provide the revolution its canvas.
And if Art Angels could be that revolution’s opening salvo, Grimes has keyed her self-actualization to a relevant issue: feminism—not as a polemical wedge, but as empowerment for an increasingly genderless and post-patriarchal age. Sure, many tracks probe specific relationship situations without attempting, or requiring, broader commentary. But when she really taps into something she leaves a scar: from her hip-to-your-tricks lyricism (“you only like me when you think I’m looking sad”) to girl-power anthem “Venus Fly” (which channels Beyonce’s “Run the World (Girls)” and ends up running circles around it), to the way she liberates a sound that you can tell she’s especially fond of — the ever-affected “anime girl” voice — from its usual exploitative trappings. On “Belly of the Beat”, she finds untapped emotion in the kind of high-pitched, expressly prefab timbre previously reserved for blatantly objectified, implicitly oppressed giant-eyed illustrations. A handful of critics have expressed dismay that she’s assumed this new guise, reflexively associating her J-pop and anime-culture nods with the usual prejudicial clichés without trying to hear how she’s subverting and overturning them.
This is most pronounced on Art Angels’ most exciting cut, “Kill v. Maim”. In an age where the tired habits of wicked bros are increasingly decried, and many an insidious predator can hide behind declarations of allegiance to the cause, Grimes dons male-face for four amazing minutes without bothering to lower the pitch, slaying an entire gender with a mic drop’s casual devastation. “I’m only a man, and I do what I can,” her paradigm dude repeatedly defends, only growing more menacing with repetition. Breaking from the character in what is Art Angels’ most wonderful moment, she reminds the whole globe-ruining male order “you gave up being good when you declared a state of WAAAAAAAR!” Frustrated contra-misogynists could make this their anthem.
You don’t have to hear any such subtextual heroics to enjoy Grimes’ latest album. Still, if your first reaction is perplexity or, old fan that you are, disenchantment, you may be more reactionary than think. Our increasingly mechanized future won’t bear witness to pop-industry overtake any more than unsynthesized sounds will go extinct. Nah — it’ll be teeming with Grimeses, grinning through conformist contradictions, ecstatically outwitting new technology into submission.