ALBUM REVIEW: Grimes, Art Angels
Grimes’s 4AD debut Visions perfectly embodied that cheesy motivational phrase “diamonds are formed from pressure”. Her manager gave her a nearly impossible deadline, the label was expecting a bold tone setter, her only real instruments were a few keyboards and GarageBand, and she was dealing with her own personal issues after dropping out of McGill University. All this pressure, thankfully, yielded a timeless, post-pop work of art that is both beautiful and haunting. Without any push or expectations, you get something like last year's Miss Anthropocene, a very good but flawed record that is only as good as the sum of its parts. Grimes is a billionaire, set for life at this point, what does she have to prove?
Her sophomore album Art Angels is a very interesting piece of the canon. In between being down bad and being up like no other, she was almost like music’s middle child. She was simultaneously signed to 4AD, an indie label, and RocNation, a brand owned by Jay-Z that signs basketball players. The finished product reflects this dual nature, it’s both a love letter to pop and DIY music, as it’s entirely written and produced by Grimes with a much bigger budget. The sound of Art Angels is Grimes enjoying the fruits of her labor; the diamonds she made on Visions get fitted into gold jewelry that she proudly adorns.
The baroque orchestral intro “laughing and not being normal” just feels like such a show of opulence with its use of ambience and organic instrumentation. Most importantly, it makes it abundantly clear that the Montréal bedroom pop of 2012 is in the rear view, the following “California” puts the nail in the coffin. Never has Grimes sounded so CLEAR, so upfront in the mix than on this lovely track. On first listen, I thought this track was the sound of Grimes selling out, but listening to it now, I want to smack my former self. This is pure uncut Grimes making exactly the type of music she wants, a fusion of sun kissed pop music and electronic wonkery that no other artist can quite pull off. It’s “Pon De Replay” grooves, Skyrim mace dropping noises and Sunshine State guitar work are all perfectly in harmony, ready to aid Grimes’ critical lyrics about scummy L.A. culture.
If “California” was a nail in the coffin of her former self, “Flesh Without Blood” is the cremation. Every aspect of the song is at odds with the dark, industrial, cold tales of unrequited love on Visions. “I don’t see the light I saw in you before” Grimes proclaims “I don’t care anymore” she continues. The lyrics are so biting, and the ferocious guitars and whips laced into the beat just adds insult to injury. Grimes makes it clear that “Infinite Love Without Fulfillment” is not so infinite, she’s no longer waiting around for some lame ass Québécois to come around, she’s taking what she wants.
“Belly of the Beat” and “Easily” slow the record down in their respective spots, a welcome change of pace for an uncharastically hard rocking Grimes record. She uses “Belly of the Beat” to invoke imagery of a perfect world where angels dance and “you never get sad and you never get sick” with ethereal coos and fast strummed acoustic guitars. “Easily” is a genre-bending piano ballad, starting off standard but slowly evolving into Diplo-style world EDM, and finishing with a riveting set of strings. On this track, Grimes continues to assert herself as a person one fights for, not the other way around.
“Kill V. Maim”, on the other hand, completely sidesteps all ideas of sweetness and romanticism, it subverts human affairs altogether. You see, there used to be a time when Grimes was in her prime. She could just tell her audience “I’m making an electro rock song that tells the story of an endless vampire mobster feud turned bloody” and they’d all just be like “that sounds cool”, and it is cool! The beat is so damn sinister, the driving bass and hard riffing guitars aid Grimes in perhaps her most wild and chaotic vocal performance to date, with lyrics to match. “B-E-H-A-V-E arrest us/Italiana mobster looking so precious, uh/B-E-H-A-V-E never more/You gave up being good when you declared a state of war” she screams like a twisted cheerleader. Like all great Grimes tracks, the backend ramps up the stakes and the BPMs, adding this new drum that sounds like it’s slapping the sh*t out of the listener.
Art Angels is truly the sound of her trying everything and mostly all of it sticking, including what I perceive as “‘90s mall montage rock”, which she tries her hand at on “Artangels” and the closer “Butterfly”. While “Butterfly” excellently fuses this style with hard house, “Artangels” sticks with the kitschy sound all the way through. She manages to combine “Start Me Up” guitar tones with shakers and electro bubbles to conjure up a sound that’d make the Spice Girls jealous. She brings back her old sound and revamps it on “Realiti'' and “World Princess Part II'', a sequel to a track on Halafaxa, and even duets with Janelle Monae for a top five girl power anthem of the 2010s on “Venus Fly''. Grimes dips her toes in commercial rave music without sacrificing an ounce of her art, and Monae is so perfect for this feature as she adeptly raps over the beat, hitting every note like a 100% completion round of Beatsaber.
To close out this extremely extensive review, let me talk about the best and worst two songs on the record. “SCREAM” is an experiment gone horribly wrong. It feels like Grimes flying too close to the sun, thinking that she can just get a Taiwanese rapper to anti-flow over some rock instrumentation and her listeners will eat it up. This track and the shorter tracks are the only aspects of this album that aren’t totally flawless. “Pin” is the antithesis of “SCREAM” in that it is the Grimes style done without a misstep. Aside from “Oblivion”, this is without a doubt her best song. If she wasn’t already emotionally fragmented on this record, she goes full psycho girlfriend here, with lyrics like “falling off the edge with you” and “Drunk in a parking lot, just after three/Tearin' out your hair like a banshee”. Every genre she experiments with on the album finds a home here, minus baroque. At its core, it’s an ‘80s pop jam, but at spots she busts in with acoustic guitar, synthetic vocal tones as on “Eight”, and harmonic loops, sometimes all at once. It’s a disorienting, plate spinning act that somehow doesn’t break a single dish, a phrase that can also be used to express how this record as a whole (mostly) feels.