I really liked Visions, the album released by Grimes in 2012. But I also found it to be a little uneven, prone to digressions that didn’t quite spin into full-fledged, satisfying tracks. Peaks and valleys are to be expected (and the peaks were absolutely glorious), but it’s nice when the valleys are worth strolling through, too. Still, every indication was there that Grimes was poised to make an album that could be deemed great without reservation. All she needed to do was take another artistic step forward. Turns out that step I hoped for is more of a long jump. Her new album, Art Angels, is plain old astounding.
With her new album, Grimes (the performing moniker of Claire Boucher) delivers an wickedly wise deconstruction of modern pop sounds, stripping tracks down to their core sounds and then embellishing them with elegant aural flourishes. That may be no more clear than on what is arguably the album’s centerpiece, “Kill V. Maim,” already one of the most discussed tracks on the album thanks to Grimes’s blissfully wackadoodle explanation of its meaning. Whether the supposed reimagining of a classic film character as a gender-bender space vampire is genuine inspiration or a spirited put on, the song pushes towards delirium, beginning with an airy, slightly sedated disco riff that gives way to a pulsing beat and brash vocals. In time, Grimes bends her voice through electronic fiddling to sounds like a kewpie doll that’s just giving in to a rush of demonic possession (“You gave up being good when you declared a state of war”). Meanwhile the song’s music keeps building in tempo and fullness, Grimes dotting its already maniacal wonders with little bits that alternately call to mind Ray of Light-era Madonna and the bizarro jolts of Cibo Matto. I suspect that no matter how many times I listen to it I’ll never quite be able to tell where it’s going. I find that thrilling.
Inspired sonic experimentation abounds on the album. “Easily” is built on a simple piano melody that keeps stopping abruptly, occasionally with the melty shock of audio tape being manually stopped, “Realti” often gives the impression of a pop song turned inside out, and “World Princess part II” percolates along to the jaunty underpinnings of video game sounds extracted straight from a thoroughly bedazzled subconscious. “Artangels” builds a genial sonic flow that sounds like an early Mariah Carey hit as reimagined by the Tom Tom Club in an especially playful mode, although, in a signature move, the lyrics carry slightly incongruous melancholy (“Angel, baby, you got me feeling kinda blue/ Think I need you and you know the things I would do/ Everything I love is consolation after you”) as the song seems to trace the whole arc of a relationship, from promise to heartbreak to personal rejuvenation (“That’s right, that’s right, that’s right/ I don’t need your medicine/ Gonna dance all night/ I’m high on adrenaline”).
The boundless musical creativity of Grimes is given further strength by the tough intelligence she brings to her lyrics. The songs don’t wilt under scrutiny, revealed as interchangeable odes to flashing light club life. She strikes back against the members of the music press (particularly Pitchfork) who confidently misinterpret her (on “California”: “You only like me when you think I’m looking sad”) and adds real teeth to the flares of anger on “Flesh Without Blood” (“Baby, believe me/ And you had every chance/ You destroy everything that you love”). And she recruits an ace collaborator in Janelle Monae for the pushback against objectification in “Venus Fly” (“Oh, why you lookin’ at me?/ Oh, why you lookin’ at me?”). Despite the pointed assertions within it, Art Angels never comes across as a treatise. It’s clearer and less compromised than that, offering open-eyed status rather than arguing a single side. It’s a state of the union address delivered from a superior pop landscape of the future. Grimes is already there, beckoning for everyone else to follow.