“When you get bored of me I’ll be back on the shelf” sings Claire Boucher on one of her poppiest and catchiest tunes to date, ‘California.’ Luckily for her, Grimes isn’t likely to be put on to the shelf anytime soon. Her fourth LP Art Angels has been three years in the making, and halfway through that process she claimed to have thrown out a whole album’s worth of material for it not being good enough. More recently, she said that she found her older works “embarrassing.” Apparently she found listening to the likes of ‘Oblivion’ cringe worthy.
That must have left fans of Boucher’s a bit worried. Her last, breakthrough album Visions was a sometimes abrasive but often intelligent dive into harsher electronic, analogue territory, moving on from the double-whammy of synth-experiments Halfaxa and Geidi Primes in 2010 and her collaborative LP with d’Eon, Darkbloom. In the time since releasing Visions, Boucher has continued to master electronic production but also learned the guitar, violin and ukulele, and signed to Roc Nation, the same label where Jay-Z transformed Rihanna from a potential one-hit wonder sampling Soft Cell into a global superstar.
So with all this knowledge in hand it’s perhaps little surprise that, aside from Boucher’s ridiculously girlish vocals, Art Angels on the whole bears only an extremely passing resemblance to Visions. Sure, there’s still some analogue fiddling here and there, but Grimes now has more in common with pop princesses Taylor Swift and Katy Perry than Aphex Twin. Indeed, Art Angels feels like the record Lady Gaga actually wanted to make when she brought out Artpop – and that seems apt considering that both artists are as known for their visual aesthetic as they are their music.
When Lady Gaga released Artpop, though, it did have one shining beacon of light in-between some of more self-congratulatory meanderings. ‘Do What U Want’ (curiously featuring R Kelly) could have been a storming sex jam in the minds of some but it was actually about Gaga’s troubled relationship with the media, finally sticking two fingers up and claiming that she didn’t care how they represented her, she was her own person. Grimes takes this liberating concept and pulls it into all kinds of shapes on Art Angels, the aforementioned ‘California’ being the most obvious example, where Boucher takes on the form of a less self-assured, futuristic Taylor Swift. On ‘Flesh Without Blood’ she says “it’s nice that you say you like me/ But only conditionally” before saying “and now I don’t care anymore” in the thumping chorus. This is self-awareness on the best of levels; Boucher knows that this album might perturb those looking for a continuation of where Visions left off, but would rather be her own woman. It’s her own hyperactive middle finger.
‘Scream,’ featuring Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes, is a ridiculously short gut punch driven by thunderous beats and guitar riffs. Its vocals have more in common with Tanya Tagaq than Mariah Carey, offering guttural moans and screams from a raw throat (is this what Katy Perry was supposed to mean when she said “and you’re gonna hear me roar”?) ‘Kill v. Maim’ is undoubtedly the most bombastic track on the record. On one brief occasion it veers a little too close to being like Avril Lavigne in ‘Hello Kitty’ mode but reclaims its pop sanity with an all-out chorus that sounds like a demonic cheerleading team performing at a Girls’ Generation gig in Seoul.
For anyone still searching for the Grimes that gave us Visions, then you’d be better off looking in the album’s second half. It’s there that you’ll find the album’s most restrained tracks but not necessarily a return to 2012. ‘REALiTi’ – now different to the (arguably better) demo form in which it was released earlier in the year – is still crisp and pulsating, while ‘World Princess Pt. II’ shimmers and the title track is bubblegum wonderment sifted through contemporary beats. ‘Venus Fly,’ a bass-heavy track with no particular structure that starts off like an off-cut from the Spice Girls’ recording studio before introducing Celtic overtones, perhaps aptly features Janelle Monae as guest vocalist. Monae, the self-styled ArchAndroid, is the perfect partner for Boucher. Both artists love popular music and, like Boucher, Monae is unafraid to take the music she loves and add a playful smattering of ideas from numerous other genres, no matter how seemingly disaparate. Together they feel like a militant force.
Art Angels is an album that firmly says “don’t be a snob, it’s okay to like pop music.” There’s no doubt that there will be people out there who feel Boucher has sold out with her fourth record, absorbing the vapidity that often gets associated with the glitz of Los Angeles. But Boucher has never made any secret of her love of K-Pop and chart music, so why is it so surprising that she’d make a full-blown pop record that checks all the boxes without feeling inauthentic? It might well end up being one of the most divisive records of 2015, but Art Angels is undeniably the best pop record of the year. And there’s nothing shameful about that.
Art Angels is out now.