By Calum Marsh | 7 February 2012
“Weird is the new indie” was the tagline officially adopted by the Pop Montreal music festival in 2010, just a few months after Claire Boucher released her debut diptych as Grimes in the same city. The coincidence was inadvertent, I’m sure, but it was certainly fortuitous, capturing the zeitgeist while announcing the emergence of a newly formed scene to the world. That it was a proper scene at all may not have been clear to most, and I doubt there was any conscious effort on the part of those involved to galvanize supporters in that manner. But you could see it crystallizing: blogs like Weird Canada and Altered Zones, labels like Hippos in Tanks and Arbutus, and overnight buzz-bands as wide-ranging as Silly Kissers, Black Feelings, Dirty Beaches, Tonstartssbandht, and an inordinate number of their contemporaries distributing limited edition hand-dubbed cassette EPs with laboriously silk-screened covers at shows in basements and art galleries and makeshift loft-like venues all over town. All of this was unofficially the start of something, the birth of weird.
More a sensibility than a style, “weird’ is like punk for aesthetic omnivores—it is proudly, often stridently grassroots-oriented, but a weird band’s as likely to reappropriate k-pop and Prince as it is something with more traditional bite. Like chillwave, there’s usually a heavy undercurrent of nostalgia coursing through this stuff, but at their best these artists forgo the dreamy, dour longing that makes bands like Washed Out sound samey and stagnant. In the case of Grimes, who is if not the recognized posterchild of the movement then in the very least its most prominent practitioner, “weird” is less a superficial affectation than a kind of conceptual framework, a way to approach pop anew. But the music in which Grimes specializes isn’t simply pop music made slightly offbeat; this is a difference of type rather than degree. It’s slivers of pop convention which are themselves drawn into the unique orbit of Boucher’s style, not the other way around.
Visions, Boucher’s fourth formal release in just under two years and the best thing she’s yet put her name to by far, is very likely to be weird music’s worldwide coming out party. Released in Canada by Arbutus and everywhere else by 4AD, Visions is also the first Grimes album with substantial international distribution, which should go a long way to securing Boucher the audience she’s deserved since Geidi Primes dropped in early 2010. It helps that Visions sounds like the assured, well-developed capital-a Album required to launch a career, and in many ways it sounds, too, like the fulfilment of the promise made by those early albums (which, though all modestly excellent, suggested that Boucher had room to develop artistically). “Vanessa,” lead single of last year’s split LP Darkbloom and still perhaps her strongest standalone track, was her first wholly successful attempt to seamlessly fold pop tropes into her avant-garde style, and Visions finds Boucher developing precisely that idea into a sort of album-scale thesis. Listening to Visions, one gets the sense that Grimes has, after two years of experimentation, finally arrived, reaching a peak that felt inevitable.
True to form, though, Visions kicks off with a bit of a formal misdirect: “Infinite ♡ Without Fulfillment (intro)” begins with more of the same sketch-like weird pop Geidi Primes and Halfaxa delivered throughout, deviating little from the formula set out by that material (if, granted, marginally more full-bodied). But then, a minute and a half later, lead single “Genesis” begins to unfurl, and the strides taken by Boucher in just two years become immediately, almost shockingly apparent: a more streamlined, clearly defined piece than anything Grimes has released before it (including “Vanessa”), “Genesis” is paced and structured like an entirely conventional (but exceptionally good) synth-pop song, and it is directly and earnestly satisfying. A typical song on Geidi Primes or Halfaxa might begin with some semblance of structure before suddenly falling to pieces, and part of the fun of listening to Grimes is finding out what she’s going to do with shards of sound once they’ve been thoroughly dismantled—even though sometimes it seemed like Boucher didn’t quite know what to do with them herself. “Genesis” and majority of songs which follow it, on the other hand, sound totally deliberate and focused, the result of which is an album that has the time and freedom to build toward pay-offs and surprises convincingly.
Trading unrestrained spontaneity for more deeply considered songwriting was a pretty major gamble for an artist as accustomed to chaos as Grimes, but the scope and ambition of Boucher’s ideas are greatly benefited by clarity and structure. For one thing, it allows her appropriation of pop conventions to be executed more effectively, because things like hooks and choruses—which Boucher’s otherworldly voice handles deftly—are built into fully formed songs that can support them. The songs on Halfaxa and Geidi Primes, with their improvisatory, anything-goes feel, rarely built toward anything like a climax—even “Rosa,” the most obviously pop-oriented track on her debut, lacked forward momentum and felt, as a result, a little slight. Visions doesn’t rid itself of that improvisatory feel altogether—much of this maintains a jazzy looseness that’s central to what separates from ordinary pop music—but individual songs are crafted with the foresight to work toward visceral and emotional pay-offs, and that makes all the difference. Even a seemingly off-the-cuff track like “Circumambient,” a skittish little thing built around densely layered vocal loops, feels infinitely more satisfying because it remains focused on making the most of a few novel sounds and ideas.
This is done exceptionally well across the album, from fleeting riffs on simple concepts (“Visiting Statue”) to more conspicuously major turns (the frankly huge-sounding “Be a Body”). Boucher even proves pliable when working with distinctive guest-producers, as with album highlight “Nightmusic,” where she is accompanied (to great effect) by label-mate and ex-Pop Winds member Majical Cloudz. But nowhere is Boucher’s revised approach more effective than on “Skin” and “Vowels = space and time.” The former is an uncharacteristically low-key breakup ballad, lithe and appropriately ethereal, that packs more emotional punch than anything Grimes has worked on prior. And because it minimizes the aesthetic idiosyncrasies highlighted elsewhere, allowing Boucher’s lyrics a degree of audibility they have pretty much nowhere else on the record, it’s also her most frank and engaging address, (almost) direct access in a way unthinkable in any of her earlier work.
“Vowels = space and time,” a similarly earnest bid for accessibility, is probably the closest Visions ever gets to replicating genuine pop music, but it does so in a manner that’s practically academic: though built around a belted-to-the-rafters refrain that sounds like it’s ripped straight out of a contemporary R&B hit, the words Boucher’s belting are, for the most part, completely indistinguishable—so conspicuously so, in fact, that it winds up sounding like meta-commentary on pop music as much as it does a well-made slice of it. Pop lyrics are fundamentally arbitrary anyway, secondary to how they sound—and Boucher’s clearly more interested in the purely formal qualities of the words. “Vowels” is a conscious anthem about nothing, something like semiotic pop.
What’s obvious in all of this is that Grimes hasn’t given up on weird music—though what she’s making sounds more streamlined and pop-inspired than ever before, she also brings formidable intelligence and ingenuity to this stuff, taking it in uncommon and exceptional directions. Visions is exactly what it sounds like: it’s an aesthetic and conceptual vision, one utterly unique to Boucher, and it’s both strange and satisfying.