Art Angels

(4AD; 2015)

By Christopher Alexander | 8 December 2015

I don’t trust snarky people. I am a snarky person, and, in the way one can never, in the words of my old deli manager, bullshit a bullshitter, I simply don’t trust the excessively negative. Writers who have a withering bon mot for every person who has ever walked the planet who dared put themselves out there. Music critics who seem to hate that something so simple as a pentatonic bass line can expose something previously safe inside of them—who don’t understand the Marshall stack, the microKorg, Dance Dance Revolution, and the .gifset are self-contained power sources, ever renewing, ever inspiring. People who seem to be so embarrassed of their own joy.

So I trust Claire Boucher.

I don’t listen to frivolous musicians. I didn’t say frivolous music; large swaths of my CD stack, LP collection, iPod classic, and data package are devoted to it, as it should be to all right-thinking people. (Frivolous music, in fact, is so good it usually transcends its featured artist.) But I can’t bring myself to follow those artists who, on wax or in interviews, clearly could have been doing anything. These are musicians who are seemingly fulfilling a credit requirement on their way to movie stardom, or failing that, professorship. These are singers who merely expect the world (whoever the “world” means to them) to fall at their feet when, at that exact moment, millions of other people need the same, and are willing to part with something no one else should ever part with to obtain it. Singers and musicians and artists who sound like whatever quotidian or unique insight, bass line or stage pose they’re offering wouldn’t have shattered millions if they hadn’t seen what they saw. Who could have been anyone singing that song.

So I listen to Grimes.

I listen to a lot of people I don’t trust and I trust a lot of people I don’t listen to. The dividing line between art and artists has never been so neat in my experience—and, anyway, I have far more rules than those two. I’m only stating this here to offer some guiding principle, dimly hoping that maybe I can convince you it should be your guiding principle too. Or maybe you already have your proverbial daggers out, what with all this presupposition of the second tense after three paragraphs full of “I” driving you to red visions… Well. Drop your daggers: this is only a record review. Or keep them raised—it’s all the same to me. As the poet might say, I won’t write my review ’til I’m in my right mind, and that mind has recently been successfully, thankfully, and above all ecstatically rewired by Art Angels. It’s a debt I must honor. I will attempt to do so presently.

One could (and should) start at the beginning with Grimes, but for the sake of your time let’s skip to her 4AD debut, Visions. The album was really more of the brilliant same from Boucher: Highly manipulated alto vocal loops danced around dense synthesizers informed by the Canadian art underground with more than a few toes in well-organized, memorable verse-chorus-bridge song structure, and though it didn’t really make literal sense it was all highly cohesive in the way lingering dreams are. Which is all to say it was great music. More of the same except for the one single that captured everything that made her brilliant, and then blew it up to 72mm.

“Oblivion” was a song that proved her love of the world—imagine anyone else from Grimes’ scene writing a song that sounded this much like Mariah Carey—but was then profoundly, deeply cognizant of the terrors of that world. It was a banger about being too afraid to walk alone at night while the narrator’s attacker lies, unpunished and unquenched, somewhere out there in that open and infinite night. (Boucher later suggested the song was based on autobiographical events). She coupled this with a canny video that had the artist singing behind a stadium audience, a visual that speaks more powerfully about a love-hate fascination with popular art than any record review (probably) ever can.

Year-end lists were made, people noticed (you already knew, of course, and so therefore felt that alien feeling of being correct) and she eventually signed with Jay Z’s management company. Evidently the idea is that she would also write for Roc Nation artists, but “Go”—a song meant for Rihanna that Grimes released herself in 2014—was a misfire in all ways, a song Rihanna could (and should) do nothing with while bearing none of the hallmarks of Grimes’ sound. In the interim she found herself under intense scrutiny for her opinions on everything from…well, everything, from the Ice Bucket Challenge (were we ever so young?) to veganism and all the other news fit to grist. She bristled; she apologized for bristling; she did about as well as any other young artist, advertising only herself, could do. But in the face of inordinate snark, she was not snarky. I still trusted her.

An album’s worth of songs were scrapped and the thought was that she needed to retreat to her arty roots. Then she leaked “REALiTi,” a castaway from those abandoned sessions, and it turned out all she really needed was a fully loaded copy of Ableton. The single was simultaneously catchier than anything she previously attempted, but also thornier and dark, all massive drums and saw-tooth wave forms (with the occasional nod to late ’80s electro patches—I still hear “Cruel Summer,” but the mileage down your own memory lane may vary). The hook’s ascending melody matched the rising action of the lyric she gave it (“ohbabyevery. mor. ning. there. are. MOWN. tains. to. climb”), which by itself was more thought out than even the average cult-electronic act, but the way it folded into about fifteen different keyboard patches, it came off like someone wagging her finger at a friend’s misbehavior—a conspiratorial wag, a wag that encouraged. That was a hell of a choice to make for a song that was, to judge by the lyric, a spooky breakup song where death felt imminent. She also seemed to be enjoying herself in the song’s video.

In any event she was clearly on to something, and her audience let her know. Eight months later comes Art Angels, and in broad strokes it sounds like the direction that was previously advertised. It’s impossible to say what was saved from the unreleased record (I confess suspicion that an album this rich, musical, and detail-exact took merely a year, no matter how long those sessions were), but suffice to say if you weren’t listening before (but of course you were) then now you should start. This record is less a sequel to Visions than it is to Rumours (1977), Thriller (1982), or even (I’ll say it) Pet fucking Sounds (196-fucking-6)—the kind of all-killer, no-filler, capital “S” statement that doubles as a high-water mark for songs, ideas, and excellent production choices.

Who the hell needs a band, or Roc-approved producers, when Grimes and her Mac can pull off such instantly memorable, dynamic, and musical feats? Consider her choices in “Easily,” the best single TLC never got around to recording, where a pause at the end of the hook gives way to the solo voice of…a woodblock run? Sure, why not? Out of this comes what could be a record scratch keyboard preset pitched to sound like nothing less than a Terence Trent fucking D’arby allusion. And it fucking works—just as the monochordal “SCREAM” works. Take a second with the palpable drawing of breath that concludes the recurrent guitar phrase, under which Boucher drops, adds, stretches out, and chops up entire drum patterns and sounds. Aristophanes’ vocal matches the tone of the piece exactly, and that tone? Cheerful murderousness, like what one imagines serving the coldest revenge, maybe; Grimes’ guitar stabs, Aristophanes’ vocal taunts. But instead of merely looping four bars with slight accents and dropouts, the producer here continuously sends her beat through a psychedelic liquid lightshow, every recitation thick with bass one second, piercingly bright the next, nearly evanescent the next. This is her approach for the entire album: like the xylophone crammed deep into the left channel of the title track, and then only in the second verse. The song would have been a standout without that xylophone—it still would have been the best pinch of Laura Branigan’s 1982 smash “Gloria” since Pulp’s “Disco 2000,” all under a wash of vocal harmonies that sounds positively, um, angelic—but that xylophone is here to enrich, to provide one more way to state an idea after we’ve heard the same idea for an entire verse already.

(This is what I mean when I say the album reminds me of Brian Wilson’s best work. Wilson liked to edit in a way he called “modular,” wherein he would stitch a song together from entirely different takes and arrangements from disparate recording sessions. So the verses and choruses of “Good Vibrations” sound nothing like each other because they aren’t the same musicians, but they brought elements of the best classical symphonies have to offer—an entire cast of characters by way of musical instrumentation, thundering dynamic range, differentiation in musical ideas—into what were fundamentally pop songs. Boucher isn’t quite as radical as Wilson: One of the benefits of digital recording to a sync beat is that the process of swapping out drum sounds at will is vastly easier, so when Boucher switches instruments mid-verse, she tends to be gradual and subtle, like a baroque composer. But digital recording also makes looping, standard equalization, and quantized rhythms available to pretty much everyone, and it seems, to my senescent ears at least, that its users rarely stray from it. Which is why I’m thankful for such little things in this record, like the deliberately off-beat, Burial-style bass drum loop that ties the otherwise chirpy “California” into something more personal and prepossessed. It turns out that, in the final analysis, the availability of technology [and its concomitant instruction manuals] is no substitute for an ear and an imagination, things as rare now as they ever were, the 1960s included.)

A lot of attention, rightly so, has already been given to the album’s centerpiece, “Kill V. Maim.” The tune sounds like Billy Corgan rewrote the Street Fighter II soundtrack while doing his best Nikki Minaj impression. It isn’t difficult to imagine Minaj over the cheerleading pre-chorus, in fact—even the sudden bursts of rage in the verse suggest Minaj might have been on Boucher’s mind more than, as she claims, a gender-fluid, astral-projecting Al Pacino. But something like embarrassment seems to greet “Belly of the Beat,” and I’ve yet to hear an explanation to persuade me. The song is both an obvious single and a complete monster, a suicide wish sublimated under glitching yelps and EDM beats. “I’ve been thinking I could leave the world today” isn’t exactly subtle, but the beat is so goddamned perfect, the melody so caressing and catchy and…mother of fuck if someone still has the gall to lionize the tonal irresolution of “Teenage Dream” in the wake of this truly ingenious see-saw of harmonic organization THAT ACTUALLY SAYS SOMETHING I will just shit. I think pulling a fast one on the masses is the true purpose of all high art (so, yeah, fuck me sideways; but keep that nugget in the back of your mind) but it turns out those dancers are interpreting things correctly: It’s when you “dance like angels do” that “you never get sad and you never get sick and you never get weak.” It’s all right there in the simple title pun, which becomes more like a detournement the more one considers it. Boucher is in that lineage of pop weirdos (not just Wilson and Jackson, but Freddie Mercury, Kate Bush, et-blessed-cetera) because she shares their attention to detail, but mostly because she too understands that, when the record is playing, it’s safe in here.

Maybe all this musical derring-do was already there in the EDM and modern pop she’s clearly influenced by. Forgive me if this is true. Maybe this is what you have been telling me all along. (This is you, right? The semiotics professor with the deconstructive exegesis of Jennifer Lopez’s From the 6 in three hundred pages, forty pages of end-notes, and all available with $5 from Jstor? That well-published writer who finds, like Studs Turkel reincarnated as a muso-nerd, genuine insight and cultural history in those beery, insipid, assembly-lined-to-actual-death songs and their interchangeable singers on modern country radio? The many younger bloggers who have the same idea but for O.T. Genasis? The second-generation trust fund scenester who has no truck with Radiohead or Wilco and then writes some prolix think piece about how, deep down, he’s always wanted to be black? You know, poptimists? Are you here? Of course you aren’t; you have a deadline to meet.) Perhaps I am the plebe of all my nightmares. I don’t doubt it. Art Angels is the kind of album that simultaneously captures its era, is made all the better for it (this 35-year-old Beatles fan would’ve given her nothing but bad advice), and obsolesces it overnight.

Still. It’s one thing to have the charms of this strain of music patiently explained to you. It’s a holy other thing to have it shown to you, as Grimes has on this record. So, I’ll concede. You can dance if you want to, and I’m happy to be left behind; we were never friends to begin with. But if you dance away to Art Angels, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you take off the headphones. Not that music like this can be diminished on any platform (if anyone complains that they can’t hear the cymbal rush in “Billie Jean” when it’s on the dance floor, that person should neither be trusted NOR listened to), but the phones are your private playroom away from the outside—away, even, from yourself. Besides, Boucher loves wearing them, and I think, given all the hi-hater wounds of these lyrics, this record is the safe place where she can confront the snarky, the cynical, the untrustworthy. Because she took them seriously, she trusted them, and they let her down. What sane person would blame her? This is what I wanted pop music to be in 2015—and now, thanks to Grimes, this is what it is. I trusted her, and I was rewarded.

I listen to her, and I am safe.