Grimes / d'Eon

Darkbloom Split 12"

(Arbutus; 2011)

By Calum Marsh | 28 April 2011

Improbably but thankfully, Grimes gets better with every release. As in significantly, staggeringly better. Game-changingly so, each time; we’re not even exactly sure what game Claire Boucher’s playing anymore, although we’re positive she’s winning. After two stunning LPs just last year, on Darkbloom Boucher continues her rise as a veritable Next Big Thing, a legitimately progressive and exciting artist who, considering that she’s only been making music under that name for a little over a year and half, is really still right there at the very beginning of her career.

Chet complained that last year’s Halfaxa sounded too much like the “wacky B-sides” to the comparatively cleaner, more cogent pop songs found on the slightly earlier Geidi Primes, but for me Halfaxa represented a huge leap in quality over its predecessor. I didn’t hear wackiness so much as a kind of artistic liberation, like Boucher was less afraid to let loose aesthetically. Early successes like the much blog-loved “Rosa,” which featured little more than ethereal vocals strewn atop a spare guitar and drum machine loop, made clear Boucher’s knack for slight, simple pop songs, but in retrospect that simplicity scans as compromise. Across Halfaxa Boucher showed the same penchant for pop, but rarely did pop convention dominate the music—instead snatches of half-finished pop songs showed up in the middle of otherwise sprawling, disjointed experimental suites, like little reminders of reality surfacing in a dream.

That was a major discovery for Boucher, one pretty much exclusively responsible for elevating Halfaxa well above her debut. And what’s completely fucking astounding is that Boucher, in the short time since the release of Halfaxa, has gone ahead and gotten better. Again. Because Boucher’s half of her split 12” with Montreal compatriot d’Eon, the (half-)revelatory Darkbloom, represents the straight-up strongest collection of music released by Grimes yet. Even Chet thinks so. Here Grimes has once again managed to step up her game, to take the next logical step in her apparently ever-continuing artistic progress.

If Geidi Primes felt like something of a formative outing, a first attempt which showed a wealth of potential but which was perhaps limited overall by Boucher’s self-imposed pop music restraints, and if Halfaxa was an improvement over Geidi Primes precisely because it liberated Boucher’s more experimental and interesting ideas from the confines of those restraints, then Darkbloom represents Boucher’s best work to date because it finds an ideal balance between those two opposing tendencies. Though the sounds and ideas it explores are every bit as varied and interesting as those found on Halfaxa, each song on the Grimes half of Darkbloom feels like a complete, coherent whole, and as a result sound like much more firmly established pop songs.

Which isn’t to say we’re back to the bare-bones simplicity of something like “Rosa”; these songs are considerably more robust and diverse, spanning a broad spectrum of styles and moods. But in the sense that it’s less sprawling and “free-form” as its predecessor, Darkbloom feels more complete and wholly substantial, as though it’s been consciously crafted to be heard not just as a meandering collection of unrelated song experiments but as a proper (if brief) front-to-back album. That this sense of wholeness comes despite Boucher’s work on Darkbloom forming only one half of a split record is maybe a little inopportune (had Grimes found her way to album-wide cogency on a solo record we’d probably be looking at a hands-down AOTY), but it’s no less incredible in its current form.

I’m not sure how Boucher stumbled upon it so suddenly, but her half of Darkbloom shows off some masterclass sequencing: kicking off with an honest-to-goodness mood-setting intro piece, the squealing experiment “Orphia,” Grimes makes it clear that she’s made strides. And then we get “Vanessa,” which is pretty much a lock for song of the year. To say “Vanessa” is the strongest track Boucher’s put her name to thus far doesn’t quite convey just how much of an improvement it is for her—it’s the probable hit single I don’t think anyone figured she had in her. This isn’t just the best Grimes song; this is the Grimes song. And what a killer video, too.

And the rest, if not entirely of “Vanessa” caliber, is uniformly excellent: “Crystal Ball” takes a style toyed with on Halfaxa and does it even better; “Urban Twilight,” maybe the darkest thing Grimes has done, is gorgeous and moody; and “Ivory,” her side’s mostly instrumental closer, ends with a gesture that is incredibly eerie but totally perfect.

I’ve not heard Darkbloom on vinyl and so can’t comment on the experience of listening to it with the necessary two-sided division, but as a continuous whole on your iPod the shift from “Ivory”‘s spare, spooky drum loop to the cell-phone-about-to-ring-near-a-speaker sound that kicks off d’Eon’s half is jarring in a pretty unfortunate way. I’ve got nothing at all against d’Eon, the Halifax-cum-Montreal wunderkind and current blog favorite, and in fact I quite like his debut album Palinopsia (2010), a deep, drawn-out record steeped in deliberately archaic synths, even if the dude does sound like Phil Collins. But after the exhilarating highs of the Grimes half of Darkbloom, d’Eon’s perfectly solid run of extended synth pop leaves me a bit cold. This is hardly his fault—Boucher’s a damn hard act to follow, and here she’s at the top of her game—but I think d’Eon’s particular schtick works better across the longer format of an LP, where his songs have the room they need to breathe. Sweeping stuff like “Recession Proof ($40 Paycheque),” the strongest track on his full-length, doesn’t make much sense in the context of a 12” split. All of which is to say: the d’Eon half is more than serviceable, but what would have been an almost unbelievably great Grimes EP is as a result of its inclusion just a excellent if lopsided split. But, perhaps more importantly, Darkbloom is standing proof that Grimes keeps getting better.