In an interview with Entertainment Weekly this summer, Grimes’ Claire Boucher said she hated “Oblivion,” the track from her breakout 2012 album Visions that is still, more than two years later, the biggest song attached to her name. “All the songs that are singles are songs people have to force me to do,” she said. “I always hate the songs that are the singles.” This isn’t a new complaint; since the dawn of music, pop stars have been denigrating their biggest hits. In 1993, Kurt Cobain told Rolling Stone he thought “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was “an embarrassment to play.” During a recent Billboard interview, Justin Bieber said, “In the past I’ve recorded songs that I didn’t like, that I wouldn’t listen to, that the label was telling me to record.” And here’s what Kanye West said about “Gold Digger” during a 2013 interview with Zane Lowe: “I never really liked it.”
The road to Visions’ follow-up, Art Angels, has been a long and winding one, paved with a Roc Nation signing, Boucher’s recently launched passion project record label, and a scrapped album that Grimes called "too depressing" to tour with. Now that it’s finally here, it has a lot to live up to. Visions entered a world that barely knew who Claire Boucher was; Art Angels entered a world holding its breath. When Art Angels’ uncharacteristically poppy first single, "Flesh Without Blood," was released, I heard Visions fans saying things like, "It’s a reinvention," and "I wish Grimes would just be herself," as if they knew exactly who Grimes herself was in 2015 despite more than three years of relative radio silence. Art Angels is the first album Grimes has made that people have been waiting for, and that says as much about her audience as it does about the album. It raises an important question about the concept of the long-awaited LP: does an album need to be what you wanted it to be in order for it to be good?
In that same EW interview, Grimes described Art Angels as having two halves: a "pop" half and a "weird" half. And that’s probably the easiest way to describe it, but even the pop songs here are weird. There’s a very shiny, ‘90s feel to some Art Angels tracks; so much so that they recall highly stylized pop groups like B*witched and S Club 7. The album’s title track, with its loopy percussion, cartoonish noisemakers, and almost as much "ooh-ing" as actual words, feels like it deserves a choreographed dance. It ends with a radio-perfect fade-out and Grimes repeating the words "That’s right," over and over again. In the span of 49 minutes, Art Angels offers up 14 radically different tracks, each with a strong perspective. If they’re any good is really besides the point — it’s what you wanted. Or maybe it’s what Grimes wanted?
Art Angels is the first album Grimes has made that people have been waiting for
Another examination of Visions with the hindsight of a new album will reveal that Visions was a fairly monochromatic project. Its songs were mostly dewy, electronic missives with choruses that had sunk gently into their own fuzz; few songs on it veer from that template. And so perhaps it’s not surprising that Art Angels feels a little scattered. The album’s opening track, "laughing and not being normal," is almost entirely orchestral, fitted with sweetly menacing string arrangements. Next comes "California," a track that sounds like a late ‘90s breakup song. Its only source of percussion is human hands and a thudding kick drum. Its chorus has Boucher stretching out the word "California" like a rallying cry for people who thrive in sunshine. That song is followed by "Scream," a track with agitated guitars, snarling vocals from the Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes, and a chorus that’s basically just one long, guttural yell. After that is "Flesh Without Blood," the shimmying, sequined dance cut that’s sure to grace an enterprising DJ’s club set or two this year.
Grimes has said Art Angels has "a lot of diss tracks," but her anger is delivered in a way that’s more disturbing than threatening. In "Kill v. Maim," Grimes shifts her voice from a childish sigh to a growling grunt to a freaky, taunting chant: "I got friends in high places, I get out for free / I got in a fight but they don't know me / Cause I'm only a man / And I do what I can." The transition is unsettling in the same way watching Jack Nicholson pounding on a typewriter in The Shining is unsettling: Is it just me or is something about to snap? And how did I not realize it sooner?
Variety is not a bad thing, and anyone interested will be able to find an enjoyable track or two here. Listening to Art Angels almost feels like listening to the radio: if you don’t like the song that’s on now, you might as well stick around for the next one. "Easily" sounds like a meandering amateur dirge, but its successor, "Pin," moves quickly and nervously: skipping around from buff percussion to stinging falsetto. Art Angels is impressive not least because of the sheer amount of sounds on it. There are handclaps, jaunty keys, guitars that sound like lasers, guitars that sound like factory machines, squeaky synths, deflating balloons, steel drums, garbage cans rolling down the street, thunderclaps, tap shoes, church choirs, and comic book sound effects.
It feels like Boucher is trying to prove that Visions wasn’t a fluke
With Art Angels, it feels like Boucher is trying to prove that Visions wasn’t a fluke, while also asserting that it was never really what she wanted to do. The album ends with "Butterfly," a song that begins with an airy, forest sprite introduction, before a sound like a needle stopping on a record jolts the song to a stop. From there it builds to a surreal, digitized ballad — something that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Visions. It’s impossible to extricate an album entirely from expectations, just like it’s impossible for any album to untether itself from the ones that came before it. Art Angels is not exempt from this rule, but by writing a song to cover every possible expectation, Grimes has made an album that questions its listeners’ sanity and throws their own demands back at them. The tactic of Art Angels is to confuse you until you’re convinced the weird thing you’re experiencing is pleasure.