You could write a fascinating alternate history of music by following the progressions of weirdos and outsiders who, after a few albums, yielded to the gravitational pull of mainstream music: The Velvet Underground, Yoko Ono, The Tubes, Genesis, Talking Heads, Scritti Politti, Simple Minds, Liz Phair, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and, more recently, Tune-Yards and Marina & The Diamonds. As Art Angels confirms, Grimes, the alter ego of Claire Boucher, is heiress to this tradition, with a few crucial differences.
If you hear the lyrics as personal, Boucher, 27, expresses wariness in these songs: “When you get bored of me, I’ll be back on the shelf,” she sings melancholically over a clapping, double-Dutch beat in “California,” the state where this Canadian musician-producer relocated in the run-up for her fourth album. More likely, she’s feinting: She co-wrote a song last year for Rihanna (who reportedly rejected it), which no writer who’s afraid of the mainstream would do. And fans know Boucher regards her tracks as character exercises. She wrote Art Angels‘ debauched “Kill V. Maim” from the perspective of Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II, “except he’s a vampire who can switch gender and travel through space,” she told Q magazine. Oh, OK. There’s nothing to indicate this in the song, except for the machine-gun joy she takes in howling “I’m a mobster” and “You declared a state of war!” — a satire, maybe, of machismo and its attachment to threats and violence.
Art Angels is a marvel of meticulous, even obsessive home-studio recording, uncompromised by bandmates or collaborators. Boucher produced it and made the record herself, save for two vocal features: Aristophanes, a Taiwanese rapper she spotted on SoundCloud, and R&B futurist Janelle Monae. In the sparkling “Flesh Without Blood,” a celebratory kiss-off with twangy guitars, Boucher uses drums as counterpoint, restlessly disrupting the beat with bangs, claps and smacks. She plays guitar, keyboards and violin, but her virtuoso instrument is Ableton software, which lets Boucher, a fan of studio experimenters from Phil Spector to Aphex Twin, chop, distort and transpose natural and unnatural sounds.
Throughout Art Angels, she equates romance with derangement and disappointment: “Your love kept me alive and made me insane,” she sings in “Realiti,” italicizing the lyric by switching from her usual light and airy voice to something more nasal and choked. She punctuates other ethereal, beautifully produced tracks with images of blood, destruction, death and defeat. Even though top 40 radio has gotten much weirder recently, as the success of The Weeknd or Major Lazer’s oddball “Lean On” proves, Grimes’ album probably doesn’t have a career-catapulting single akin to Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House.” Radio likes a vocal to be shockingly clear and loud in the mix, but Boucher prefers to hide and distort her voice, which is her least impressive, most commonplace tool.
Boucher directs her own videos, paints her album covers, exhibits drawings, curates a great Tumblr and gives hilarious and nuanced interviews. Even discounting for the tendency of Americans to perceive Canadians as intellectually superior (Marshall McLuhan was a Canadian, but so were Bachman-Turner Overdrive), she’s a canny, analytic, self-aware performer. Grimes is an art project at risk of going mainstream, and Boucher knows it. She closes Art Angels with “Butterfly.” Boucher starts the beat, then briefly halts it. The lyrics seem to be about deciding to speak up, as well as environmental damage. After an album that’s so happily angry, it’s soothing to float above nature. Butterfly is also the name of an out-of-the-cocoon album by Mariah Carey, whom Boucher loves, unironically, and the song feels like a coy, coquettish come-on from a pop star putting herself up for sale, especially when she repeats the sibilant line “Sweeter than a sugar cane.” But the last sound on the album is Boucher, softly vowing, “I’ll never be your dream girl.” Everything she is, she also isn’t.