ALBUM REVIEW: Grimes, Visions
“Lesser artists copy, greater artists steal” said either Pablo Picasso or Igor Stravinsky, one of whom stole it from the other. Elvis stole Little Richard’s entire style, both George Lucas and Quentin Tarantino ripped off Akira Kurosawa, and Bad Bunny totally jacked Tego’s style and flavor of reggaeton. What if an artist steals from 10 or 20 different sources and synthesizes it in one product that sounds like none other? Would that make someone “the greatest artist”? This “hypothetical” is the reality of Claire Boucher’s music, which is a colorful kaleidoscope of influences from ‘80s darkwave to Björk to Nine Inch Nails that comes together to create a sound that sounds out of time and space. Is Grimes “the greatest artist? No, not at all. But by essentially crafting her own genre over five studio albums, she has helped give courage and credibility to those who steal from her; whether it be contemporaries or offspring.
While her early works like Geidi Primes (2010) and Halfaxa (2010) saw her drowning in her influences, they are interesting pieces of the Grimes story. A listener can see her blatantly ripping off New Order’s cover art on Halfaxa, doing an M.I.A. jungle pop thing on “≈Ω≈Ω≈Ω≈Ω≈Ω≈Ω≈Ω≈Ω≈” and a Crystal Castles thing on “Sagrad Прекрасный” in a voice that is high-pitched and indecipherable like a Liz Fraser from Cocteau Twins. While they are not terrible listens, it wasn’t really until her single “Genesis” began popping up at shows in May of 2011 that she began what could be described as a “indie pop Genesis”. It was the creation of a new type of music entirely, a more clear vision of the future of the genre.
Picture yourself as Grimes for a moment: you are living in Montreal and just dropped out of McGill University where you were on a promising track to become a physicist, not the typical career path for a young woman as physics is mostly male dominated. Your weirdo bedroom pop music has legendary indie label 4AD attempting to sign you, which was once home to classic, A-list indie bands like TV on the Radio, Mojave 3 and Stereolab. Your manager Sebastian wants to act on the opportunity and pressures you to drum up a label-ready album in a short three-week period. To compile this stress, you were recently (TWTWTWTW) s*xually assaulted on the streets of Montreal (this will come into play later). What did Claire Boucher do in a situation like this? Well, she took a ton of Adderall, blacked out her windows, slept and ate minimally and created Visions.
Visions is truly a piece of art that sounds like no other. It begins with “Infinite Love without Fulfillment”, which sounds like a f*ck you to any and all expectations of what an “indietronic” or “indie pop” album should sound like. As it’s title suggests, it is a literal loop of unrequited love. She duets the phrases “I will for you if you want me to” and “It’s all upon my own, it’s all upon my babe” over this incessant ‘90s R&B snare hit and two synth notes played back and forth. It is a perfect intro track in that it puts the listener immediately into the action while introducing them to the looping darkwave, baby voiced style that Grimes is working at. Following this is the aforementioned “Genesis”, which sounds like part 1 of Grimes’ manifesto to turn indie pop on its head. Reusing that menacing synth tone from the previous track, Grimes adds a New Age digital violin, pianos and sharp, industrial kick drums. Grimes sounds like an ethereal figure, dumping a golden bucket of purifying water over the “grimy” ‘80s soundscape she clearly draws from. The sounds of Nine Inch Nails and John Carpenter keep their dark edge but gain a bit of sweetness with some great instrumental flourishes and baby voiced cooing from Grimes herself.
“Oblivion” is part two of Grimes’ path to word domination, her best song and one of the greatest songs of all time, in any genre. I can name a thousand newer artists that take this exact blueprint and go all different ways with it. Contemporaries like Purity Ring seemed to live in the shadow of this behemoth, while newer artists like Ecco2k, 100 gecs and FKA twigs all took this oddball ethos and ran in a totally different direction with it. The dark synths are a recurring sound on this album, and on this track they sound downright playful, more Italians Do It Better than industrial rock. Grimes’ emotional and vocally impressive performance elevates lyrics like “I never about after dark, it’s my point of view/Because someone can break your neck, coming up behind you always coming and you never have a clue” I watched the music video of her dancing in front of aesthetically pleasing videos of soccer and motocross racing, not knowing the symbolism of her being herself in these male dominated spaces. The lyrics are so deeply personal, her vocal work is so good and hides that darkness so well that I missed the reference to her Adderall abuse in the lyrics “I need someone else, to look into my eyes and tell me/Girl you know you gotta watch your health” By the end of the track, between the shimmering synths, plinky pianos and that sound that goes “OOOOoooooOOOoooOooo”, “Oblivion” feels like a neon-lit carousel swinging me around at 3 am, as Grimes and her a abuser square off with the phrase “See you on a dark night”.
“Eight”, the best of three short interludes, sounds as unpeaceful and robotic as a Terminator film. “Try this! Try this!” screams the Roland Juno-G keyboard preset over and over until it BECOMES the beat, along with some delayed and skittering drum hits. Grimes’ signature baby voice is on display here more than any other track in her discography, the way it bounces off the harsh mechanical instrumentation is unlike anything I’ve heard before or since hearing it.
“Circumambient” is perhaps the loopiest Grimes track, which bursts into a series of repeated samples of her own voice bouncing off each other like a hundred rubber balls dropped in a small, enclosed space. Over this wiggly synth lead and clipped drum hits, Grimes’ vocalizations are an absolute force, whether being vocodered like Ministry or reaching for high notes like Mariah Carey on “Emotions”. “Vowels = space and time” takes a more ‘90s freestyle approach to its beat work with claps, drumstick hits and “woo woo”s to go around. Like many songs on Visions, it sounds like a synthwave alternative history of music, where acts like Robyn and Arca are as popular as Ariana Grande.
“Be a Body” is perhaps my favorite non-single track in how ravy yet meditative it is. It has the electronic tones of an early ‘00s Eurodance track, but the lyrical content and use of what sounds like lute on the verse says otherwise. It’s a track about Grimes being independent, not only of other people but of the weight of the world. She calls the listener to focus hard and just be a body out of your earthly reality. If this sounds like something a person might discover while on a drug-fueled trip, it’s because it is and the pulsating, MDMA soundscape Grimes paints for herself on this track makes the listener experience it with her. “Symphonia IX (My Wait Is U” is the track that made me want to review this album. It previously eluded me in my younger days, I found it to be boring and not as exciting as tracks like “Eight” and “Oblivion”, but I now realize that it takes the raw energy and playful vocal elements of those two and puts them over a cold and slow Russian dance music dystopia. I can picture an embodiment of Grimes manifesting from the ghostly liquid nitrogen that is emitted from these synths.
“Nightmusic” with fellow Canadian natives Majical Cloudz is truly a collaborative match made in heaven. This track dives straight into the alien rave direction with no frills whatsoever. The track kicks off with another icy synth lead and Grimes sings “She’d be, she’d be on the sun/Love could always may come and go/Do you wanna say oh/Guys do not wanna say/Anything in front of”, which is by all accounts a hodge-podge of phrases that could not work without Grimes’ subtle, whispered vocals that sound like they could any language. Like Cocteau Twins before her, it’s not about what she says, it's about the way that the vocals become instruments themselves.
Was Grimes the first to do the baby voice? No, that was probably Björk. Is she the first person to infuse industrial and pop music? No, that was probably Nine Inch Nails on Pretty Hate Machine. In my opinion, even though Grimes was signed to 4AD, she was breaking traditions of indie music. She was hated by many people in both the indie and pop worlds, her music was just so totally new and weird that it would take many years for her to be accepted into both. Her follow-up album Art Angels helped to bridge the divide…